Chest pain, high fever, and bleeding are easy-to-identify symptoms that let us know something's wrong and it's time to get to the hospital. But sometimes, our body tells us of impending trouble in subtle ways—a little pinch in the arm, an occasional headache. Here are 10 symptoms that demand your attention.
Swollen or Discolored Breast
It's normal for breasts to swell (sometimes dramatically) before your period and when you're pregnant. But unusual, rapid swelling or discoloration (purple or red spots) may actually be signs of inflammatory breast cancer, a rare type of advanced breast cancer that develops quickly. See your doctor to rule out a breast infection, which can have very similar symptoms.
Read about the causes of swollen breasts.
Many women experience "the monthly bloat," and some food sensitivities can even make you feel bloated for a day or two. However, abdominal bloating that lasts more than a week can be an early sign of ovarian cancer. Other symptoms include feeling full quickly after eating or difficulty eating, needing to urinate frequently, and having a persistent lack of energy. Because the symptoms of ovarian cancer are so vague and easy to overlook, many cases of ovarian cancer are not identified until later stages. It's important to see your gynecologist if you have unusual or persistent bloating.
Learn about the causes of abdominal bloating.
Bloody or Black Stools
Stool color can change from day to day based on the foods you're eating and medicines you're taking. (Iron supplements and diarrhea medicines such as Pepto-Bismol may turn your stool black or tarry, for example.) Anything in the brown or green spectrum is normal, but black stool or bloody stool is rarely okay. Black stool suggests you have a bleed in your upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Maroon-colored or bloody stool suggests a bleed lower in the GI tract. See your doctor to check for bleeding that may be from hemorrhoids, ulcers, diverticulitis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), cancer, or other GI conditions.
Read about the causes of black stools.
Unusual Shortness of Breath
Walking up flights of stairs or a steep hill leaves many people winded. But being short of breath or having a hard time catching your breath after a short walk, such as to your car or to the mailbox, could be an early sign of coronary ischemia, a lack of blood flow in the heart muscle because of a partial or complete arterial blockage. A complete arterial blockage may cause a heart attack. Talk to your doctor about your difficulty breathing. If you begin to experience other symptoms—such as chest pain or discomfort, nausea, or lightheadedness—get to an emergency room as soon as you can.
Modern life lends itself to reduced sleep and increased tiredness, but if you never seem to feel rested (even after a good night's sleep), your low energy could be a sign of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). As thyroid function lags, you may begin to feel extra tired and sluggish. Other potential symptoms of a thyroid condition include depression, hypertension, and muscle weakness. If you experience any of these symptoms, see a doctor. A doctor will likely check your hormone levels and test for other conditions, such as sleep apnea.
Read about other causes of exhaustion.
Unless you're actively trying to slim down, weight loss on its own is concerning. One of the first signs of many problems, including cancer, is unexplained weight loss. It's important to see your doctor if you experience this.
Learn about causes of unintentional weight loss.
Chest or Facial Hair
Elevated levels of androgens (male hormones) can cause unwanted or excessive hair growth and may signal polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)—the most common hormonal disorder among women of reproductive age. Other conditions associated with PCOS include adult acne, obesity, irregular periods, and high blood pressure.
Recurring abdominal pain and cramps, diarrhea, and/or constipation could be signs of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition that is more common in women than men. It is easy to ignore or dismiss the symptoms as an "upset stomach" or bad meal, but IBS is treatable with changes in diet, lifestyle, and stress management. Medication may help with symptoms.
Vaginal Bleeding after Menopause
This bleeding is never normal, and you should see your doctor as soon as possible. The bleeding may be harmless, but it could be a sign of a serious issue, including cancer.
Weakness ' Headache ' Dizziness ' Loss of Vision or Speech
If one or more of these symptoms come on suddenly, severely, and out of nowhere, it is essential that you seek medical care. You may be experiencing a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA). TIAs are sometimes referred to as "ministrokes." Unlike a stroke, a TIA will not cause injury to the brain; however, more than one-third of people who have had a TIA will have a stroke later in life.