Some days you wake up feeling not quite right— you have a splitting headache, an odd pain, or a spiking fever. You brush it off because you drank too much last night, or there’s a bug going around the office, right? When strange symptoms strike, most of us just wait it out, try to rest up, and perhaps take a sick day. But some unexplained symptoms can’t be overcome with just chicken soup and Advil.
Some symptoms should never be ignored, and can lead to greater health issues if they aren’t dealt with in a timely manner (or immediately). If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms below, it’s a good idea to get checked out by a doctor as soon as possible to figure out what’s really going on.
“The onset of the ‘worst headache of your life,’ or even a new type of a headache in someone who is over 30, can be a sign of a life-threatening bleed in the head,” says Dr. Mia Finkelston, a board-certified family physician who treats patients via the telehealth app LiveHealth Online. This can occur without obvious trauma, she explains. See your doctor immediately, especially if the headache accompanies signs of confusion or disorientation.
“For many of us, losing weight signifies being fit and healthy and could prove to be evidence that your hard work in the gym is paying off,” explains Dr. Finkelston. But unintentional weight loss is not something to celebrate, and if it happens over a short amount of time there could be a serious health issue at play. “Sudden weight loss can result from several things, including certain types of cancer, chronic infections and depression,” she adds. If you’ve experienced unexplained weight loss, you should be evaluated by a health care professional right away.
Bilirubin is a yellow pigment formed by the liver during the natural breakdown of older red blood cells in the body. Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes, occurs when the liver isn’t able to do its job properly and there’s a build-up of bilirubin in the blood. “A painless yellow color to your skin or the white part of your eye can be a sign of pancreatic cancer or hepatitis,” says Dr. Finkelston. Jaundice can also be a telltale sign of a gallstone obstructing the bile duct.
Swelling (also known as edema), can happen during pregnancy, from eating salty foods or from sitting too long (such as on a long flight). It could also be an indication of a serious underlying disease, such as congestive heart failure. Conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes harm your heart muscle over time, which hampers its ability to pump blood as efficiently as it should. Blood backs up in the legs, ankles and feet, causing swelling. This is why it’s important to visit a doctor if you notice any abnormal or sustained swelling.
“Healthy kidneys function to remove extra water and wastes, help control blood pressure, keep body chemicals in balance, keep bones strong, and tell your body to make red blood cells,” explain Dr. George Aronoff, vice president of clinical affairs at DaVita Kidney Care. Constant or severe flank pain is a common sign of a chronic kidney disease (CKD), which occurs when the kidneys are no longer able to clean toxins from the blood at their full capacity. He adds, “The most frequent causes of CKD are poorly controlled high blood pressure or diabetes. Kidney disease can happen all of a sudden or over time.”
Your bad breath may be more serious than just an unpleasant side effect of the keto diet. “Bad breath can be a sign of gingivitis or periodontitis. It can be a sign that there is decay or that crowns need to be replaced. It can also point to medical issues like diabetes, ulcers, gastrointestinal issues and dehydration,” according to cosmetic dentist Dr. Victoria Veytsman, DDS, of Cosmetic Dental Studios.
Teeth grinding, also called bruxism, is something many people do from time to time. “A few of the most common reasons why people grind their teeth are stress, a bite that is not stable or aligned properly, acid reflux, or medications,” explains Veytsman. However, she warns that it can also be a symptom of sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder which left untreated can lead to hypertension or heart failure.
Many people assume hair loss comes with aging, but you might want to check with your physician to rule out more serious causes of hair loss. According to Dr. Shawn Vendamani, MD, a board-certified anesthesiologist, “your genes are the most common cause of hair loss for both men and women, but it’s important to look at other potential causes as well. Sometimes hair loss can be caused by a medical condition or hormonal change. Hair loss can be brought on through certain medications, supplements, and dietary changes. Your doctor can help you determine the exact cause of your hair loss to treat an underlying condition.”
Nausea is something everyone experiences throughout their life, and the causes are often not too serious: You ate or drank too much, you’re nervous about starting a new job or giving a speech, or you’re pregnant (well, that last one might be considered pretty important). However, frequent bouts of nausea could be something to bring up to your doctor.
According to obstetrician Brian Levine, MD, FACOG, it could be a symptom of endometriosis, especially when the nausea occurs during a woman’s period. “The mechanism is not completely understood, but is thought to be due to endometriosis implants on the bowel and possibly the stomach,” he explains. Other symptoms of endometriosis include pelvic pain, fatigue, bloating, diarrhea and constipation.
“It’s totally normal to see occasional flashes of light or floaters, which are dark spots that seem to float around,” explains Dr. Holly Phillips, a medical expert for RxSaver by RetailMeNot. “People who are nearsighted may see floaters more frequently, and both occurrences happen with increased regularly as we pass the age of 55.” But if you experience a sudden onset of flashes or floaters, you might have a torn retina. This is a medical emergency and can “progress quickly to a detached retina, which can cause permanent vision loss,” she says.
Just look at your fingernails and toenails if you want clues regarding your overall health. Any changes in their appearance could signify a medical condition that needs attention. “Vertical ridges can occur with iron deficiency anemia or poorly controlled diabetes, dark streaks may be a sign of an underlying melanoma, dry nails are linked with an underactive thyroid, and pale nails could signal liver disease, vitamin and mineral deficiencies,” says Phillips.
“Laryngitis during or shortly after a cold is nothing to worry about. But if you are frequently hoarse you may have GERD (which stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease),” explains Philips. “GERD happens when acid from the stomach backs up into your esophagus causing irritation of the tissue leading toward your vocal cords and is usually exacerbated by lying down.”
According to Dr. Inna Husain, assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at Rush University Medical Center, hoarseness can be due to benign conditions such as vocal fold hemorrhage, nodules, and polyps. However, “it can also be a sign of vocal fold cancer, and often the first sign is a change in the voice,” she warns. If your hoarseness is severe or lasts more than four weeks, she recommends an evaluation of the vocal folds.
Some people are just easy bruisers, notes Phillips. “Nonetheless, if you notice an increase in the frequency or severity of bruising, it could signify underlying liver problems, a vitamin deficiency (particularly vitamin K or vitamin C) or even certain types of leukemia,” she advises.
“Snoring is something people tend to laugh at, but it can be an indication of something not so funny. Forty percent of people who snore have sleep apnea,” says Dr. Jonathan Greenburg, sleep expert and founder of Zyppah Inc., a company that makes a patented oral device that helps treat snoring. According to the American Heart Association, sleep apnea is associated with high blood pressure and heart failure, and severe sleep apnea has been linked to an increased risk of cancer and stroke, according to a study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. But with treatment, “the likelihood of stroke and heart attack decreases significantly,” says Dr. Greenburg.
Pain and cramping in one leg can be a sign of deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT occurs when a blood clot (thrombus) forms in one of the body’s deep veins (often in one of the legs). “DVTs can occur in anyone, even young healthy women, although some people are at a greater risk,” says Dr. Nisha Bunke, MD, FACPh, RPhS, of LaJolla Vein Care.
Risk factors include sitting for long periods (such as on a long flight), recent surgery, pregnancy, using certain medications or prolonged bed rest. DVT is serious, and can lead to a pulmonary embolism if the blood clot breaks free and travels through the bloodstream to one of the lungs. Other early warning signs of DVT include soreness, swelling, warmth, and redness.
Urine helps rid the body of waste, so what you eat can affect the way your urine looks and smells (hello, asparagus pee). If you have high blood glucose levels, the body will try to get rid of extra glucose in your urine, causing it to smell extremely sweet. Dangerously high blood glucose levels can be a sign of uncontrolled diabetes. Any change in urine’s appearance or odor can be the initial sign of a serious health problem, so don’t ignore it.
Stígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir/istockphoto.com
Abnormal growth of body hair often points to a hormone imbalance. Higher-than-normal levels of androgens (steroid hormones, such as testosterone) can lead to excessive hair growth or a deepening of the voice. According to Dr. Adeline Peters, lead physician and head of the medical panel at DoctorOnCall, this imbalance of hormones may “result in a disease called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Typically, hair growth is seen on the face, chest and around the nipple area.” If you’re experiencing this symptom, it’s important to mention it to your doctor, because PCOS can lead to complications including infertility, Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, and metabolic syndrome, among other serious health issues.
Nocturia is a condition which causes a person to frequently wake up to go the bathroom throughout the night. “Nocturia is not uncommon, but its causes vary: About half of patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) have nocturia, many men with insomnia have nocturia, and women with nocturia can have daytime overactive bladder syndrome,” explains Dr. John La Puma, MD, FACP, and founder, AGreenRx.com.
Painful swallowing could be a sign of something run-of-the-mill, like a sore throat. But when this symptom appears out of nowhere and accompanies difficulty swallowing, it can be a major red flag. According to Dr. Kyle Varner, a physician specializing in internal medicine, “difficult or painful swallowing can be a sign of ulcers or even esophageal cancer. Left untreated, ulcers can progress to life-threatening bleeding, and cancer can progress to the point where it is not treatable.”
When vision in one eye goes dim and then suddenly comes back, see a doctor immediately, because this is major sign of a forthcoming stroke. The medical term for this dimming is amaurosis fugax, and it can signal a blockage in an artery in the neck. When your eyes and brain do not receive enough blood flow, the dimming occurs. Varner explains: “The good news is that these blockages can be fixed and major strokes can be prevented. The bad news is that most people don't realize the dire situation, and don't seek care until it is too late.”
If you notice blood in your urine, consult a doctor immediately. “Blood in your urine is a major red-flag sign of possible kidney and bladder cancer,” says Varner. “Sometimes it will come and go, and patients often ignore it, especially when it is painless. But when they ignore it, they often give cancer a chance to spread and that means their chance of a cure goes way down.”
Chest pain should never be ignored. “It can mean that you have coronary artery disease and are at risk of a heart attack,” Varner warns. “If you have chest pain, especially if it comes on with exertion and goes away with rest, you need to get checked out for heart disease stat.” According to the CDC, one in four deaths in the United States is linked to heart disease, but the good news is that you can actively reduce your risk. Here are some of the deadliest silent killer diseases in the United States — and how to avoid each one.
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