We’ve all ignored medical symptoms from time to time, usually without dire consequences. Let’s face it: It’s much easier to avoid the doctor than to go and be told that what you’re secretly worrying about is nothing.
But there are some symptoms that should send you to your doctor without a moment’s hesitation. To get guidance on what those might be, we checked with Dr. Cindy Parnes, founder and Director of the New Jersey Women’s Wellness Center in Montvale, N.J.
She noted that “paying attention to what seems like inconsequential complaints sometimes can prevent a trip to the ER or identify more serious issues.” So when should you definitely call the doctor? Here are eight red flags you should never ignore.
1. Chest pain
That searing pain in your chest may, in fact, be a heart attack — the type you often see depicted on television shows. So if you feel a squeezing feeling in your chest, call 911.
If the pain is less severe, but it keeps recurring, you should also call your doctor. “You have to make a judgment,” Parnes says. And don’t assume a heart attack is always felt in the chest. Such symptoms as back pain, nausea, jaw pain or extreme fatigue (like you can’t make your bed without needing a nap) may indicate that your heart is in distress. If you are experiencing any of these, call 911 and say you’re having a heart attack.
2. Severe head pain
If you have a headache that comes on suddenly and can only be described as the worst pain you’ve ever had in your life, call 911 immediately. You may have an aneurysm, a weak area in the wall of an artery supplying blood to the brain.
The pain is the result of the enlarged artery pressing on your brain. If it ruptures, you could have a stroke, or worse, die from the bleeding into the brain. Do not hesitate; call 911.
Parnes says this is different than a migraine, though similar symptoms, including vomiting, light sensitivity, and fainting can occur. But the pain in your head will be so gripping that you will barely be able to stand it.
If you start having headaches with regularity (and if they come on suddenly), then call your doctor. Those could be the sign of a brain tumor, problems with your eyesight or a number of other factors. The emergency is not as great as an aneurysm, but, Parnes says, your doctor needs to rule out other problems.
3. Abdominal bloating & gassiness
A patient came to Parnes after major cardiac surgery. She felt bloated all the time though her appetite had not really increased. Still, she could not even close her pants.
She explained that she thought it might have something to do with surgery — maybe there was excess air trapped in her gut after having been open on the operating table for so long?
Parnes knew that this red flag could mean something serious, so she ordered a blood test and ultrasound. Her patient was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“It’s the new onset of bloating and gas that concerns me,” Parnes says. “It’s not a one-day change. It’s a change that goes on consistently.”
If you have unusually significant bloating, loss of appetite, bleeding after menopause or a change in bowel habits, contact your doctor.
4. Numbness in your hands or feet
If you feel numbness, weakness or tingling in your hands or feet, or have lost strength (you have trouble climbing the stairs, for example), you may have a herniated or bulging disk in your vertebrae which is pressing on your nerve. And that nerve may become compromised.
“If you don’t relieve the pressure on the nerve, you can end up with permanent neurological changes or damage,” Parnes warns. Call an orthopedist or a neurologist to discuss treatment options. Usually a doctor will wait to see if these symptoms will clear on their own. But in the meantime, you may need physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (like Aleve or some other medication), alternating heat and ice or perhaps a cortisone injection.If those treatments don’t do the trick, you may need to have surgery. Either way, do not wait to get attention.
5. Leg pain with swelling
If you notice swelling in your calf accompanied by a painful tenderness in the area, call your doctor or get yourself to the nearest Emergency Room.
“This requires immediate attention,” says Parnes, “and is not something you should wait on.”
The symptoms indicate a blood clot in your leg, and it’s a dangerous condition because if the clot breaks free and travels to your lung, it could be fatal.
Pulmonary embolisms kill about 200,000 people a year, according to the Society of Interventional Radiology, a group that tracks such statistics. The clot can block the oxygen supply in your lung.
However, if it is treated quickly (usually with blood thinners and careful watching), the mortality rate is less than 10 percent. Patients with a history of blood clots are most susceptible, but anyone who has been immobile for a long time may develop a blood clot (that’s why it’s a good idea to walk around the plane on long flights). Other symptoms include shortness of breath, discoloration of the legs, more visible veins and a warm spot on the leg.
6. Persistent cough
If you can’t shake that cough, get yourself to the doctor. A cough that won’t quit can mean many things, Parnes says. Possible diagnoses include:
- an infection
- cancer of some type
- cardiac distress
- Gastro Intestinal Reflux Disease (GIRD)
- bronchial or lung problems
“It should be investigated,” says Parnes.
7. Outsized fatigue
Everyone’s energy level is different, especially as they age. But if you are finding that suddenly you can’t maintain the pace of your life, then your body might be trying to tell you something.
Your doctor can test you for anemia. You could have Lyme’s Disease or a malignancy. Your hormones might be out of balance. It might be a sign of heart attack.
In any case, don’t ignore it. See your doctor and let him or her rule out the causes of your lethargy. It may be a simple problem that can be remedied, so you’ll feel more like your old self in a very short time.
8. Bleeding after menopause
If you are not supposed to be bleeding and you are, that’s a problem, says Parnes.
“People use the term ‘break-through bleeding’ a lot,” says Parnes, “but that’s really an issue of the birth control pill. When you have bleeding mid-cycle and you’re not on the pill, that’s abnormal. If you’re perimenopausal, your periods may get closer together or farther apart, but you’re not supposed to bleed between them. Patients come to me and say things like, ‘I think I’ve been exercising too much.’ You don’t get bleeding from exercise,” she says.
But endometrial polyps may cause bleeding. Unbalanced hormones may cause it. An atrophying uterus can cause bleeding. It could be a sign of endometrial cancer.Going to your doctor will allow you to have tests that can rule all that out. Or, it could be the trip that makes a life-saving diagnosis. The bottom line: if you are bleeding, notify your doctor immediately.