Take note of these warning signs and know when you need to seek medical care.
You already know that obvious symptoms, such as chest pain and severe abdominal pain, require immediate medical attention. But the not-so-obvious symptoms may leave you wondering whether you need to seek care. Here’s a list of symptoms that merit at least a call to your doctor. While some of them are more urgent than others, none should be ignored.
1. Unexplained weight loss
Losing weight when you’re not trying to may sound good, but in reality it can signal a health problem. If you’ve lost up 10 percent of your weight during the past six months — for instance, 15 pounds (7 kilograms) if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kilograms) — see your doctor.
An unexplained drop in weight could be caused by a number of conditions, such as an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), depression, liver disease, cancer or other noncancerous disorders, or disorders that interfere with how your body absorbs nutrients (malabsorption disorders).
2. Persistent or high fever
Fever isn’t an illness, but it is often a sign of one. Most of the time, a fever means your body is fighting a common viral or bacterial infection. However, a persistent low-grade fever — over 102 F (38.9 C) — that lasts for three days or more should be checked by your doctor. Similarly, if you have a high fever — greater than 104 F (40 C) — or if you’re otherwise severely ill, see your doctor as soon as possible.
If you have an immune system problem or take drugs that suppress your immune system, fever may not be a reliable warning sign. Ask your primary doctor or oncologist what would signal a need for an evaluation.
Persistent fever can signal hidden infections, which could be anything from a urinary tract infection to tuberculosis. At other times, malignant conditions — such as lymphomas — cause prolonged or persistent fevers, as can some medications.
3. Shortness of breath
Feeling short of breath — more than that caused by a stuffy nose or exercise — could signal an underlying health problem. If you’re unable to get your breath or you’re gasping for air or wheezing, seek emergency medical care. Feeling breathless when lying down, with or without exertion, also is a symptom that needs to be medically evaluated without delay.
Causes for breathlessness may include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, a blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism), as well as other heart and lung problems. Difficulty breathing can also occur with panic attacks, which are episodes of intense anxiety that cause physical symptoms.
4. Unexplained changes in bowel habits
People often wonder what “normal” means in terms of bowel movements. It varies widely, but anywhere from three times a day to three times a week is considered normal. Know what is typical for you. Call your doctor if you notice unusual or unexplained changes such as:
- Bloody stools
- Diarrhea lasting a week
- Constipation that lasts for more than three weeks
- Unexplained urges to have a bowel movement
- Black or tarry-colored stools
Changes in bowel habits may signal a bacterial infection — such as campylobacter or salmonella — or a viral infection or parasitic infestation. Among other possible causes are inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer.
Delirium is sudden severe confusion and rapid change in mental state, such as from lethargy to agitation. Close friends or family members may be the ones who notice this symptom. Immediate medical evaluation is warranted if you have any of the following:
- Sudden confused thinking
- Disorientation — confusion about time or place
- Sudden personality or behavior changes, such as becoming aggressive
- Sudden problems with concentration or memory
Changes in behavior or thinking may be due to many problems, including infection, anemia, low blood sugar, or psychiatric conditions or medications, especially ones you’ve recently started taking.
6. Sudden severe headache
Headaches are common and generally not a cause for concern. However, a sudden severe headache could signal a serious problem. Seek prompt medical attention if you experience:
- Sudden severe headache like a clap of thunder
- Headache accompanied by a fever, stiff neck, rash, confusion or seizures
- New pattern of headaches after age 55
The last item may indicate that you have temporal arteritis — inflammation of the arteries in the scalp, brain and eyes — a rare, but treatable condition that usually begins in middle age. Other possible causes of severe headache may include a brain tumor or aneurysm.
7. Sudden weakness, loss of vision or speech
If you have these signs or symptoms, minutes count. They’re warning signs of a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA), sometimes called a ministroke. Seek immediate emergency medical care if you have:
- Sudden weakness or numbness on one side of your body
- Sudden dimness, blurring or loss of vision
- Loss of speech or trouble understanding others
- Unexplained dizziness or unsteadiness, or a sudden fall
- Sudden severe headache, like a “bolt out of the blue”
8. Flashes of light
The sudden sensation of seeing flashing lights may signal retinal detachment. Immediate medical care may prevent permanent vision loss.
9. Feeling full after eating very little
Early satiety — feeling full sooner than normal or after eating less than usual — that lasts for more than a week should be checked by your doctor. It may be accompanied by other signs and symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, bloating, fever, and weight loss or gain. If so, tell your doctor about these signs or symptoms too.
Possible causes of early satiety include heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome, as well as more-serious problems such as gastric outlet obstruction or esophageal cancer or stomach problems.
10. Hot, red or swollen joint
If one of your joints is swollen or inflamed, it may signal a joint infection, which requires emergency care. Other causes may include gout or some types of arthritis.