Don't overlook them—they could be life-threatening.

By Elizabeth Swanson
February 28, 2020

Health-wise, people seem to fall into two camps: the hypochondriacs—or those who think that every headache and every cough signals a potentially life-threatening condition—and those who haven't seen a doctor in years. If you fall into the former camp, it doesn't help that a quick internet search of your symptoms can be easily matched with a slew of diagnoses. And while stressing out about minor things can be detrimental for your health (stress ultimately isn't good for the body) it's just as problematic to ignore symptoms entirely.

Getty / Maskot

Sometimes we don't give them enough weight, and we brush potentially important symptoms off by thinking, "That's just how my body is." But not heading to a doctor when something feels off can be incredibly costly in the long run. "When in doubt, see a physician," says Dr. Arielle Sommer, MD, assistant clinical professor at UCLA Health. "Go to a primary care doctor you can have a long-term relationship with and seek his or her advice if you are concerned. They'll take everything into context and guide you on what to do." Here, Sommer identifies the symptoms that could signal something is seriously wrong—signs that may not always seem to warrant a conversation with your medical professional, but absolutely do.

Related: Common Symptoms of a Hormonal Imbalance—Plus, What You Can Do to Correct It

Chest Pain

Context is everything when it comes to determining whether or not your chest pain is serious. For example, if you have acid reflux and eat an Italian meal with pasta, meatballs, wine, and chocolate, you will likely have indigestion and perhaps chest pain afterward. Though uncomfortable, this is not concerning. What you do need to worry about, however, is chest pain that preempts a heart attack. "That feels like more of a pressure or squeezing," Sommer says. "It tends to be central in the chest (though it can either be right or left-sided) and is brought on when there's increased demand on the heart from exercise, exertion, stress, anxiety, or sex, to name a few examples. If you have this type of chest pain, it's important to see your doctor."

Rapid Weight Loss

"The elephant in the room is cancer," Sommer says. "It's definitely a concern for people who lose weight rapidly." The threshold for clinically concerning weight loss, she says, is losing five percent of body weight over 6 to 12 months—but any unexplained weight loss should be brought up with your doctor. Weight that is very easy to lose, even if intentional, is noteworthy, too, she adds.

Make sure you're getting your regular age- and health-appropriate health screenings—PAP smears, mammograms, and colon cancer screening tests—and see your doctor for any bloodwork you might need. Aside from cancer, other causes of weight loss can include thyroid disorders; infections such as tuberculosis, HIV, and hepatitis C; IBS or celiac disease; inflammatory states of autoimmune diseases; side effects from certain medicines; and advanced chronic disease such as heart, kidney, or lung disease. Depression and anxiety can also lead to weight loss.

Blood in Your Stool

"This can signify a hemorrhoid, a fissure (a cut in the rectal skin), colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, or an infection," Sommer explains. "Always make sure you are up to date on your colon cancer screening. It is reasonable to check in with your doctor about this, especially if it is new for you."

Changing Moles

Changing, irregular moles could be cancerous, which means these absolutely warrant a conversation with your primary care physician or dermatologist. Sommer says to ask yourself the ABCDEs of skin cancer: Is the shape of the mole asymmetrical? Are the borders fuzzy? Is the color splotchy? Is the diameter larger than a pencil eraser? And is it evolving over time in any of the above areas? If any of these are true, it's important to get checked out.

Painful Cramps

If you have cramps that begin one to two days before your period and last for several days afterward—and if you experience pain with sex, bowel movements, and urination—you could have endometriosis. Along with pain, infertility is another problem associated with this condition, which occurs when "uterine tissue has migrated outside of the uterus, but responds like the tissue in the uterus to hormones," Sommer says. "It grows and sheds with the cycle, but when it's not in the uterus, there's nowhere for the blood to go, and that is what causes pain."

Unexplained Constipation, Weight Gain, and Fatigue

Diagnosing a thyroid problem can be tricky, since symptoms associated with thyroid disfunction are often vague and common to other diseases, Sommer says. "But the important thing to note is when several thyroid symptoms exist together in a pattern. I check thyroids a lot, especially in patients who have difficulty losing weight or those who report fatigue," she says. Aside from fatigue and weight gain, signs of hypothyroidism include brittle hair and nails, dry skin, intolerance to cool temperatures, few or no menstrual cycles, carpal tunnel, muscle weakness, or cramps. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism are often the opposite, with some overlap, Sommer notes: weight loss, diarrhea, heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding, heart palpitations, a subtle tremor, thinning hair, anxiety, sweaty and warm skin, muscle weakness, bulging eyes, and darkening skin.

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