Do You Need to Worry About These 12 Health Symptoms?
Take hair loss, for example. Thin-looking hair or bare patches make everyday grooming more of a challenge; panicking that it’s caused by some sort of autoimmune issue will only cause stress and, possibly, more hair loss. There are so many other hair loss causes that assuming the worst-case scenario is often a waste of energy.
Before you see a doctor, think about other potential causes of the symptom and try addressing those. Looking into at-home solutions—such as rest for persistent fatigue or DIY headache remedies for a persistent ache—is also smart idea. If at-home fixes don’t cut it, it’s time to make an appointment—but taking a relaxed approach to non-critical health symptoms can help keep your nerves steady. After all, you probably eat a healthy breakfast and stick to healthy snacks and exercise at least occasionally. Doing your best to lead a healthy lifestyle is enough—don’t let a wacky health symptom shake your confidence in your ability to take care of your mind and body.
Read on for 12 common health symptoms and possible causes that are a little more likely than the worst-case scenarios you're worried about. Our medical degree–holding experts also share smart reality checks that will help you figure out which symptoms you should see a pro about—and which you can relax about.
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Alarmist scenario: A brain tumor.
More likely cause: A tension headache or a migraine.
Reality check: “Headaches alone don’t make me look for a brain tumor,” says neurologist MaryAnn Mays, a staff physician at the Headache Center at the Cleveland Clinic. A brain tumor would typically involve symptoms such as sudden muscle weakness, headaches that wake you from sleep, numbness, personality changes, lack of coordination, vomiting, and changes in vision, hearing, and speech.
Rx: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, usually relieve tension headaches and mild migraines. If your headaches persist for more than two weeks or if your migraines aren’t helped by over-the-counter NSAIDs, like Excedrin Migraine, see your doctor.
Alarmist scenario: Type 2 diabetes.
More likely cause: Your body is telling you to drink more water. If you exercise frequently, you need extra fluid to make up for what you lose through sweat. Dry, overheated air and some medications, including diuretics, can also make you unusually thirsty.
Reality check: “Unless you're thirsty all the time and you urinate frequently, increased thirst doesn’t necessarily suggest diabetes,” says endocrinologist Larry Deeb, the medical director of the Diabetes Center at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, in Florida. Other symptoms of type 2 diabetes include extreme hunger, unusual weight loss, fatigue, irritability, and blurry vision.
Rx: Keep a “water log” for a few weeks to track how much you’re drinking, then consult your doctor. Diabetes can be diagnosed with a simple urine or blood test.
Alarmist scenario: Breast cancer.
More likely cause: Fluctuating levels of hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, which can cause breast cells to expand in the latter part of the menstrual cycle.
Reality check: “Breast pain, in isolation, is almost never cancer,” says oncologist Richard Elledge, an associate professor of medicine at the Breast Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. “You don’t need to worry,” he says, “unless you have symptoms, such as new lumps, that don’t come and go with menstruation; changes in the color or some other appearance of the skin over the breasts; or bloody discharge from the nipples.”
Rx: If breast pain is a frequent problem, limit yourself to two cups of caffeinated beverages a day. “Some women find that cutting back reduces discomfort,” says Elledge. If the pain persists, ask a doctor about danazol, a synthetic steroid that reduces hormonal fluctuations.
Alarmist scenario: Lung cancer or emphysema.
More likely cause: A cold, acute bronchitis, postnasal drip from a cold or allergies, or acid reflux.
Reality check: “Symptoms of lung cancer do not come on suddenly,” says pulmonologist Norman H. Edelman, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. “Cigarette smoking causes 87 percent of lung cancers, so if you don’t smoke, your risk is low.” Smoking is also the leading cause of emphysema.
Rx: If your cough lasts more than four weeks, see a doctor. “If you cough mostly at night, avoid eating within three hours of bedtime, since gastric reflux can contribute to a cough,” says Edelman.
Alarmist scenario: A heart attack.
More likely cause: Muscle strain following exercise or heavy lifting, gastric reflux, heartburn, soreness that results from a bad cough, or lung irritation from an upper-respiratory infection.
Reality check: Heart attacks are relatively rare in people under the age of 45. The average age among women for a first heart attack is 70.
Rx: Because getting treatment within one hour of a heart attack increases the survival rate, experts say not to ignore intense chest pain that lasts for more than five minutes. “I’ve had female patients as young as 32 have heart attacks,” says cardiologist Richard Stein, the director of preventive cardiology at Beth Israel Medical Center, in New York City. If the pain lasts for more than five minutes, call 911.
Alarmist scenario: The beginnings of baldness.
More likely cause: Stress, pregnancy (typically about three months after giving birth), medications (including birth-control pills and antidepressants), or being over 40.
Reality check: “Although hair loss is a common complaint, for women under 50 it’s often likely to be temporary and due to stress or medications,” says endocrinologist Gregory Brent, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Rx: If hair is falling out from the top of your scalp but not the back, see a dermatologist. In some cases, minoxidil (Rogaine) can help the hair regrow. If a hormone imbalance is the cause, correcting that can help.
A New Mole, Pigmented Skin Growth, or Spot
Alarmist scenario: Skin cancer.
More likely cause: A harmless mole, a seborrheic keratosis (a wartlike growth common in people over 40), or an age spot.
Reality check: Skin is constantly changing, in part due to sun exposure. Many changes are harmless, but “if you’re over 30, take new moles seriously,” says Deborah Sarnoff, M.D., a professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine.
Rx: Do monthly self-exams and get a skin-cancer check from a dermatologist every three years if you’re between the ages of 20 and 40 and annually after age 40. The ABCDE warning signs for skin cancer are a mole or a spot that is asymmetrical, has an irregular border, is unevenly colored (or has patches of red, white, or blue), has a diameter wider than a quarter inch, or seems to be evolving.
Alarmist scenario: Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
More likely cause: Fatigue, stress, or depression; certain medications, including antidepressants and sedatives; or chronic multitasking.
Reality check: “Fewer than 5 percent of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are under 65,” says geriatrician Laurel Coleman, a spokesperson for the Alzheimer’s Association. The rare early-onset variation has a strong genetic link. Memory loss that’s a cause for concern affects job performance, makes day-to-day tasks difficult, diminishes language skills, and causes changes in mood or behavior.
Rx: Coleman recommends getting seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, taking steps to reduce stress, and considering whether you might suffer from depression. If you’re taking medications, ask your doctor if they could be impairing your memory.
Alarmist scenario: An ulcer or stomach cancer.
More likely cause: Gas or acid reflux.
Reality check: “Most occasional abdominal pain doesn’t have an underlying cause,” says gastroenterologist Carol Burke, the director of the Center for Colon Polyp and Cancer Prevention at the Cleveland Clinic. While ulcers are fairly common, affecting one in ten Americans, they involve additional symptoms, including weight loss, burping, nausea, vomiting, and bloating. Stomach cancer is rare (primarily affecting men older than 72) and usually accompanied by nausea, weight loss, gastrointestinal bleeding, and bloating.
Rx: Try over-the-counter remedies, like Tums, Mylanta, and Prilosec, and avoid anti-inflammatories. If you have severe symptoms that occur more than three times a week or persist for more than two months, see a doctor.
Alarmist scenario: A stroke.
More likely cause: Low blood sugar, an irregular heartbeat, stress, a cold, or the flu.
Reality check: “In an otherwise healthy person who is not also having heart palpitations, light-headedness is not likely to suggest a stroke,” says Stein. While people of all ages can have strokes, those over the age of 65 suffer two-thirds of them.
Rx: Eat regular meals that include some protein to keep your blood sugar stable. “When you feel light-headed, make a cup of tea with honey, lie down, put your feet up, and see how you feel after 10 or 15 minutes,” says Stein. “If it happens more than once or if you’ve ever fainted, see your physician.”
Alarmist scenario: Chronic fatigue syndrome.
More likely cause: Anemia, a thyroid disorder, depression, stress, or insomnia.
Reality check: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 1 million people in the United States have chronic fatigue syndrome, making it fairly uncommon. Signs may include frequent headaches, flu-like symptoms, a sore throat, tender lymph nodes, extreme fatigue following mental or physical exertion, muscle and joint pain, and the inability to concentrate.
Rx: Get at least seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, eat nutritious meals, exercise most days of the week, and try to reduce stress. Fatigue-causing ailments, like anemia and thyroid problems, can be diagnosed with blood tests and treated with medication and lifestyle changes.
Alarmist scenario: Rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
More likely cause: Says rheumatologist Patience White, the chief public health officer for the Arthritis Foundation, “There are three main possibilities: osteoarthritis, which is related to age and injuries; an overuse injury, like bursitis, tendinitis, or ligament pain; and referred pain, meaning you have a problem in a place [say, your back] other than the joint that hurts—perhaps your knee.”
Reality check: Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus disproportionately affect women but are still relatively rare.
Rx: Rest and take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, such as naproxen or ibuprofen. An aspirin cream, such as Aspercreme, can also soothe sore joints. If the pain lasts for more than five days, if you have a fever, or if you feel extreme or prolonged fatigue, see a doctor.