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6 Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

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John Whyte, MD, MPH - Blogs
By John Whyte, MD, MPHBoard-certified internistNovember 6, 2018

It can be hard sometimes to figure out whether you really need to go in and see the doctor. Most of us probably know that if you have chest pain or sudden weakness, dizziness, or vision changes, you need to get to the emergency room ASAP. But how do you distinguish signs and symptoms that could be just a normal part of aging versus a condition which might be much more serious? Delaying treatment could, in many cases, have a significant impact on your health and wellness.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of patients that waited too long – often because they didn’t think what they were experiencing was a big deal. Here are 6 symptoms that you should not ignore:

1. Unexpected weight loss. You read that correctly. If you are losing weight, and not trying to do so, it needs to be investigated, especially as the weight loss gets to be 10 or 15 pounds. We typically gain weight as we get older, so unintentional weight loss could be a sign of a serious problem. Cancer can often present as weight loss, as well as thyroid disease, celiac disease, and infections like HIV or hepatitis C.

2. Moles that change color. Never, ever ignore a mole that changes in color, shape, or size. Be sure to get a skin check of your entire body from a dermatologist every year. Skin cancer is the most common cancer, and part of the reason might be that people don’t get screened frequently enough to catch potentially cancerous spots before they cause trouble. Do not make the mistake of assuming every spot is just a freckle.

3. Excessive sleep. I realize that many people will say sleeping too much is a problem they wish they had! But if you are sleeping more than 9 hours a day, it could be a sign of depression, chronic inflammation, or even multiple sclerosis. If you are often always tired, sleeping during the day, and overweight, excessive sleep might be part of a condition called narcolepsy.

4. Persistent cough. If you have a cough that lasts more than 2 months, you need to have it checked out. A persistent cough is not only annoying, but it may also be a sign from your body that something isn’t right – perhaps asthma or even acid reflux disease.

5. Abdominal pain in the right lower quadrant. Tummy aches are common, but belly pain that is in a specific location – especially the lower right quadrant – needs to be examined if it lasts for more than a couple days or is intense in nature. Appendicitis classically presents as pain around the belly button, but it can also just feel like a worsening gnawing pain on the right side of your belly. I know from personal experience. Don’t be like me and ignore it, thinking it’s just indigestion or a virus. I waited too long and my appendix ruptured, requiring emergency surgery.

6. Chronic pain. You are probably wondering what’s considered “chronic.” Doctors are taught that daily pain that lasts more than 12 weeks is considered chronic. It is not normal – at any age – to have pain every day that significantly limits your activity. The aches and pains of aging should not be causing a major limitation on the way you live your life. The cause of chronic pain always needs to be determined, but you have to go see the doctor to help figure it out. We have learned a great deal about the biological and neurological mechanisms of pain over the last decade. There are new therapies –both medical and non-medical – that can help relieve pain. So please don’t needlessly suffer.

Our bodies are great communicators, often telling us what is wrong – if only we listened more closely. So when you feel something just isn’t right, get it checked out.

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About the Author
John Whyte, MD, MPH

John Whyte, MD, MPH, is a board-certified internist and the Chief Medical Officer at WebMD, where he leads efforts to develop and expand strategic partnerships that create meaningful change around important and timely public health issues. As a popular health writer, he has been published extensively both in medical and mainstream publications.

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