It's natural to be worried when you feel something could signal internal troubles.
Unusual or unexplained symptoms such as bleeding, dizziness or pain may not always indicate a serious health condition, but ignoring a recurring problem can be a dangerous game, says Len Lichtenfeld, M.D., deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. The last thing you want to do is cause a delay in your own diagnosis and treatment.
Instead of hoping a new or recurring health problem will silently go away, stay calm and let your wiser instincts take charge. “Most things we feel aren’t serious, but that doesn't mean we shouldn’t get it checked," says Lichtenfeld. Whether your symptoms are obvious or your body is giving you subtle signs that something’s not quite right, paying attention is key. After all, early detection is your best defense since it also means a better chance for speedy treatment.
Red flags that require immediate attention
For many people, the annual checkup has gone the way of the typewriter, and yet following up on any unusual body signal is a good time to have other health checks, too, such as blood pressure and overdue screening tests. These signs and symptoms could be red flags to call your health-care practitioner.
1. Unexplained weight loss. In the absence of emotional trauma or other challenges, losing 10 pounds or more when you're not trying is a clear indication that something is afoot. Certainly, sudden and dramatic weight loss is one indication of cancer, especially the lungs, esophagus or pancreas. Yet that 10-pound mark is just a rough guideline, Lichtenfeld cautions, and sudden weight loss could also be due to hormonal fluctuations or stress. How much unexplained weight loss is too much depends on your starting point, so a quick consultation with a physician is a good idea.
2. Something funny under your skin. If you find a lump, bump or mass that you’ve never noticed before — whether it’s pea-sized and discreet, wide and thick, or fixed or movable — play it safe and call a health care provider. It may be nothing, but it may be something too. Even a lump you find on a breast or a testicle during your monthly self-exam could be a benign growth or a fatty deposit, but the sooner you know exactly what’s going on, the better.
3. Bleeding from the inside. Significant amounts of blood where it's not supposed to be — in urine, stool, vomit, sputum or from your nipple — is a definite sign of illness. (In contrast, you might experience less worrisome streaks of light blood in the sputum, a fairly common occurrence with productive coughs in adults.)
Another symptom that signals a timely checkup is heavier than normal vaginal bleeding or bleeding between menstrual cycles. Note: Blood doesn't always look bright red. Blood in the stool, for instance, can look dark and tarry black. Schedule a doctor’s appointment without delay.
4. Lesions or cuts that change or don't heal. If the body shows no signs of mending a sore within a reasonable time and you have certain cancer risk factors, make an appointment to get it checked. What appears to be a lingering canker sore in the mouth of a cigarette or pipe smoker, for instance, could be problematic. Any moles or age spots that change in color, size or texture should also be monitored. Even if you're not at risk, pay attention to spots and sores that don’t heal.
5. Changes that persist, or even those that come and go. Anything that's not normal for you should put you on alert, says Lichtenfeld. If hoarseness or a dry cough goes from a temporary annoyance to a full-scale ache, your body’s telling you something. Ditto the scary symptom that recurs periodically, such as occasional dizziness. It may be a momentary blood pressure swing, but it might also signal heart problems.
6. Pain when you push yourself. Any kind of pressure in your chest, back, head or abdomen that flares up during exercise may be a symptom of heart trouble. Pain that radiates up to your jaw or down your arm or accompanies another symptom such as light-headedness or nausea could be a heart attack. Call 911. Not sure if it's an emergency? Call 911.
7. At a loss for breath. Whether sudden and severe or subtle but persistent, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties can indicate problems ranging from asthma to heart disease. It can also be a side effect of obesity, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss it. Let your doctor decide.
8. Sudden, severe sensations. Any abnormal feeling that stops you in your tracks — such as a squeezing pressure in your chest, numbness on one side of your face or a sharp, debilitating pain in your abdomen — could be an emergency. Know the signs of a stroke or a heart attack, which often present quite differently for women than men.
9. Fever and night sweats. A temperature of 103 degrees or higher is an obvious danger sign, but so is a low-grade fever (100.4 or higher) that persists or comes back repeatedly, says Lichtenfeld. Also, don't dismiss night sweats as a common symptom of menopause until you see a doctor.
10. Flutters or a racing heart. Your heart doesn't flutter for no reason, but some are more serious than others. True anxiety can cause palpitations and the American Heart Association says the sensation that your heart’s beating too fast or skipping beats is one symptom of a heart attack.
Take the next steps
Be sure to schedule yearly checkups, follow up on all annual procedures and talk to a nurse or health-care practitioner if you have further questions. If something comes up beforehand or afterward, schedule another appointment just to be safe.
If you see more than one doctor for a specific condition, make sure all of your symptoms, tests and medications are written down in one central place so your whole health-care team is on the same page. Specialists and caregivers also need to know about ongoing procedures and possible medicinal contraindications.