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10 Common Symptoms That Should Never Be Ignored

Medically reviewed by Carmen Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on March 18, 2022.

1. Chest Pain Or Discomfort In The Upper Body

Unlike the movies, most people with an heart attack don’t suddenly fall to the ground clutching their chest. Symptoms often come on slowly, and people may describe an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or pain in the center of the chest that lasts a few minutes, or goes away and comes back again. Sometimes the symptoms are felt more in the neck or in an arm. Women may be more likely to experience symptoms such as nausea or vomiting, back or jaw pain or shortness of breath. It is not uncommon for people suffering from a heart attack to break out into a cold sweat.

A heart attack is a circulatory problem and it is different from a cardiac arrest although the two terms are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably. In a cardiac arrest, a person is more likely to suddenly fall to the ground, because the heart suddenly stops beating or starts beating abnormally. A defibrillator is needed to get it beating again and hands-only CPR should be performed to the beat of Staying Alive until emergency services arrive.

If you suspect someone is having a heart attack or has had a cardiac arrest, call 911 straight away. Minutes matter and fast action can save lives.

2. The Worst Headache Of Your Life

Almost one-half of the world’s population has some type of headache disorder. That’s a lot of headaches. And trying to sort out dangerous headaches from minor headaches is a challenge faced by physicians every day.

But there are a few “red flags” or warning signs that should be taken seriously, even if you suffer from headaches regularly. Call 911 or go to the ED if anybody describes their headache as “The worst headache of my life”, or if their headache is accompanied by other symptoms such as neck stiffness, personality changes or a loss in function of just one area of the body (such as an eyelid drooping, speech, or balance difficulties).

Also see you healthcare provider straight away if:

  • you are over 50 and this is your very first headache; or younger and headaches are interfering with your daily life
  • the headache came on immediately after an activity such as weightlifting, aerobics, jogging, or sex; or you experience headaches soon after a head injury
  • your headache worsens with time
  • you have a severe headache that seems to stem from just one eye, and that eye is red
  • your headaches are accompanied by vision problems, weight loss or pain while chewing
  • you develop headaches after having cancer.

3. Drooping Or Weakness Down One Side Of The Body

Every year, about 795,000 Americans suffer a new or recurrent stroke. That’s about one stroke every 40 seconds. A person’s chances of survival after a stroke are greatly improved if somebody recognizes their symptoms quickly.

F.A.S.T. is an easy way to remember the sudden signs of stroke.

  • F – Face Drooping. Does one side of the face droop or feel numb. Is the person's smile uneven?
  • A – Arm Weakness. Is one arm weak or numb? Does one arm drift downward when both are raised?
  • S – Speech Difficulty. Is speech slurred? Can they correctly repeat a simple sentence like "The sky is blue."
  • T – Time to call 911. Note the time and get help FAST is someone shows ANY of these symptoms

4. Shortness Of Breath Or Wheezing

Many different conditions can affect your breathing. Although most causes are not dangerous and are easily treated, if the breathing difficulty is new or getting worse, it may be a sign of something more serious.

Call 911 if somebody stops breathing, is having serious difficulty breathing, or if their breathing difficulty has come on suddenly. Urgent attention is also warranted in people with a known condition (such as asthma) whose usual reliever medications (such as albuterol) are not helping, or in people with chest discomfort accompanied by shortness of breath.

5. Weight Loss With No Good Reason

Weight loss is to be celebrated if you have been working out every day, eating healthily to try and lose weight, or following a specific diet. But if you are just sitting around, not doing much, eating what you normally eat, but your weight seems to be falling off, get it checked out.

Unexplained weight loss could be a sign of stress, depression, infection, cancer, a digestive disorder, or a side effect of some medications (such as fluoxetine or levothyroxine).

6. Pain In Your Abdomen That Persists Or Recurs

There are many different conditions - some serious, others not so serious- that cause stomach pain. Less serious causes include constipation, food allergies or intolerances, food poisoning, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, and stomach viruses.

More serious causes include appendicitis, bowel obstruction, cancer, stomach ulcers, inflammatory bowel disorders (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), and kidney stones.

Bear in mind that how bad your pain is does not always reflect the seriousness of the condition causing the pain. For example, a stomach infection can cause severe stomach cramps whereas colon cancer or early appendicitis may only cause mild pain or no pain.

See your doctor if your abdominal pain persists or recurs.

7. Tenderness, Pain, Or Swelling In One Or Both Legs

Almost all types of pain, swelling, or tenderness in the lower limbs needs to be investigated further by a doctor; however, causes vary greatly in urgency and severity.

Generally, symptoms that come on suddenly, occur just in one leg, or that are accompanied by chest pain, difficulty breathing, or confusion warrant a visit to the ED, as they may be a sign of a blood clot (such as a DVT) or a heart condition.

If the swelling or pain has come on gradually see your doctor as soon as you can. Common causes include arthritis, drug side effects, heart failure, injury, kidney problems, poor circulation, or pregnancy.

8. Blood Mixed With Feces, In The Urine, Or Non-Menstrual Bleeding

Blood occurring in places where or when it shouldn't, is always a warning sign.

Blood on or mixed into your stool can occur with hemorrhoids, anal fissures, stomach ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, and colorectal cancer. Bright red blood usually indicates bleeding near the rectum, whereas dark or tar-like blood mixed in with the stool indicates bleeding higher up in the colon or small bowel.

Blood in the urine may turn toilet water red or pink. It may be a sign of a kidney, urinary tract, or prostate problem or occasionally the result of a bleeding disorder.

Bleeding in postmenopausal women or constant bleeding in women of childbearing age always warrants further investigation. Causes include fibroids, hormonal medication (such as estrogens), inflammation or infection of the cervix, ectopic pregnancy, or cancer.

9. Changes To Your Breasts Or Nipples

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in American women, behind skin cancer. This year, over 287,850 women are expected to be diagnosed with either invasive breast cancer or carcinoma in situ (the earliest form of breast cancer). Early detection is the key to survival, although there is some controversy regarding when screening should begin and how frequently it should take place.

The American Cancer Society recommends women aged 40 to 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year. All women aged 45 to 54 should have a yearly mammogram and once past the age of 55, women can either continue to have yearly mammograms or opt for biennial (two-yearly) mammograms. Women who are at high risk for breast cancer should get a breast MRI and a mammogram every year, typically starting at age 30.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) guidelines are currently being updated, but guidelines issued in 2016 recommend biennial screening for women aged 50 to 74 years, and the decision to screen earlier (between the ages of 40 and 49), should be an individual one and take into account the potential benefits and harms of mammography, the woman's preferences, and her breast cancer risk profile. The USPSTF has found there is not enough evidence to make a recommendation about breast cancer screening in women younger than 40 years or older than 75 years.

The American College of Physicians recommend a biennial mammogram for women ages 50 to 74 who are at average risk for breast cancer and have no symptoms, and recommend screening be discontinued in average-risk women who are 75 or older, with a life expectancy of 10 years or less.

These guidelines do not apply to women who are at high risk for breast cancer because of an underlying genetic mutation (such as a BRCA1 or BRCA2) or a strong family history of breast cancer, a history of chest radiation at a young age, or with worrying symptoms. These women should get mammograms or undergo other imaging procedures at a frequency agreed upon with their doctor.

All women should be aware of the normal look and feel of their breasts and report any changes to their doctor. Changes may include:

  • A lump, thickening or tenderness in or near a breast or an armpit
  • Breast or nipple skin changes: ridges, dimpling, pitting, swelling, redness, or scaling
  • Nipple discharge
  • Unusual breast tenderness or pain.

10. Feeling Like There Is No Point

Depression is very common, affecting one in ten Americans. Left untreated it can cause a downward spiral of worsening mood that can be hard to pull yourself out of.

Symptoms include feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, self-loathing, loss of motivation or interest for activities that you once loved doing, appetite or weight changes, sleep disturbances, feeling tired all the time, and reckless behavior.

If you ever feel like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and death feels like the easiest end to your pain, help is just a phone call away. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  (1-800-273-TALK) is toll-free and available 24/7 with skilled, trained, counsellors ready to help you find a reason for living.

Don't Wait, Act Now!

While nobody wants to get sick, it happens to all of us every now and then.The one thing all these symptoms have in common is that your chances of survival are greatly increased if you act quickly. Some things just can’t wait until tomorrow or next week. See your doctor today!

Finished: 10 Common Symptoms That Should Never Be Ignored

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  • Warning signs of a heart attack. American Heart Association
  • Hainer BL, Matheson EM. Approach to acute headache in adults. Am Fam Physician. 2013 May 15;87(10):682-7
  • Headaches. Danger Signs. Medline Plus.
  • Spot a Stroke Fast, Stroke Warning Signs And Symptoms. American Heart Association/American Stroke Association
  • Shortness of breath. Causes. Mayo Clinic
  • Unexplained weight loss. Mayo Clinic
  • Abdominal pain. Causes.
  • Leg swelling. Mayo Clinic.
  • Rectal bleeding. Cleveland Clinic
  • Breast Cancer: What is Breast cancer. American Cancer Society
  • U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.