- Joe Raedle/Getty Images
- It can be hard to recognize the symptoms of a serious health problem.
- Sudden pain in your head or legs can indicate life-threatening conditions.
- Here are 13 warning signs medical experts say you should never ignore.
It takes only a small malfunction in one part of your body to cause health problems – but recognizing the signs of a serious medical problem can be tricky. Sudden pain or a change on your body could indicate a life-threatening condition.
INSIDER spoke with medical experts about what signs and symptoms you should never ignore. Of course, not every instance of these symptoms indicates a life-threatening disease, but better knowing the signs that it’s time to see a doctor can be helpful.
Chest pain that radiates to your arm or jaw could be serious
Chest pain is a common symptom of a heart attack, which occurs when the blood supply to your heart is cut off, usually from a clot in a blood vessel.
“Chest pain that radiates to the arm or jaw is a sign of a heart attack,” emergency-room and family-practice physician Dr. Robert Milanes told INSIDER. “This pain is not reproducible with movement or touch – that would be muscular pain. If you get these symptoms, definitely go to the emergency room and take an aspirin. Aspirin will save your heart.”
People who are over 50 or have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or a strong family history of heart disease are more at risk of having a heart attack.
Get to the emergency room if one eye is suddenly red and painful
It’s normal for your eyes to sometimes become a bit red or dry from lack of sleep, strain, or irritants in the air. But you should see a doctor if one eye suddenly turns red and sore.
“Sudden, onset red-eye with pain is indicative of acute closed-angle glaucoma and can lead to blindness if not treated,” Milanes said.
This is also called acute angle-closure glaucoma. It’s an immense buildup of pressure in your eye, and it can be triggered by your pupil dilating, whether from being in a dark space or medication. The pain is usually accompanied by nausea.
A sudden, terrible headache could mean your brain is bleeding
Most headaches come on gradually. If you ever have one that strikes suddenly and gives you blinding pain, go to a doctor as soon as you can.
“A ‘thunderclap’ headache or ‘the worst headache of your life’ is a medical symptom you should never ignore,” nurse practitioner JB Kirby said. “This is a sign of a bleed in your brain. You should call 911 immediately before the bleed starts damaging brain cells.”
Calf pain or cramps could be a sign of a life-threatening condition
Muscle pain in your legs can happen because of strenuous exercise or simply twisting the wrong way, but cramps that don’t seem to be tied to movement or that happen after you haven’t moved for a long time could be something more dangerous.
“If you have a history of cardiovascular disease and find yourself having calf cramps that coincide with swelling, tenderness to palpation, warmth, or discoloration, you should immediately call your doctor to ensure you do not have a deep vein thrombosis, which is a blood clot in one of the deeper veins in your leg,” orthopedic physical therapist Yera Patel said.
The clot can dislodge, travel to your lungs, and cause a pulmonary embolism, which can be fatal.
Painful swallowing is a symptom of cancer or ulcers
“Painful swallowing is a major red-flag symptom that should prompt immediate investigation,” internal medicine specialist Dr. Kyle Varner said. “Left untreated, ulcers can progress to life-threatening bleeding, and cancer can progress to the point where it is not treatable.”
If you suddenly start snoring, talk to your doctor
Snoring might seem like just an annoying nighttime habit, but it could also be a sign that your airway is blocked.
“There are routine reasons why snoring can happen, such as a cold or allergies, but chronic snoring could potentially be a serious issue associated with an increased risk for heart disease or an indication of large tonsils,” internal medicine and pediatric specialist Dr. Constantine George said.
Snoring isn’t dangerous, but transforming from a silent sleeper into a regular snorer is something to bring up with your healthcare provider at your next checkup.
An inability to pass gas or move your bowels might indicate a serious problem
It’s not unusual to feel constipated once in a while, but you should get medical help if you notice that you haven’t passed gas or waste in longer than is normal for you.
“Abdominal pain is very common and is usually caused by constipation,” Milanes said. “However, when there is abdominal pain and inability to pass gas or have a bowel movement, this could mean a bowel obstruction or ileus.”
A bowel obstruction happens when something is physically blocking waste from moving through your intestinal tract, and it could cause a tear in your intestine or infection.
Weakness on one side of your body or face could indicate a stroke
Weakness on one side of your face or body, facial droop, and slurred speech are symptoms of a stroke or a transient ischemic attack.
“Strokes are caused by clots or a ruptured vessel,” Milanes said. “Time equals muscle, so it is crucial to go to the emergency room ASAP so you can get a life-saving drug called TPA.” TPA needs to be administered within 4 1/2 hours.
Sudden vision changes can be a sign of something more serious
You should quickly report any sudden changes in vision, such as the onset of blurry vision, double vision, pain in one or both eyes, or loss of vision, to your doctor.
“Changes in your vision can be – but are not always – associated with problems in your actual eye,” registered nurse Donique Jones said. “Instead they may represent other underlying issues such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, or stroke.”
Speak to a doctor right away if you notice changes in a mole or freckle
Though moles and freckles are common and often benign, if you have any, keep an eye on them and report any changes in color, texture, shape, or size to a healthcare professional at once.
“Moles should be round, flat, and symmetrical,” Kirby said. “If they start to grow or if the edges are jagged, then you need to see your doctor. This could be nothing, but it could be skin cancer. Either way, it needs to be looked at.”
Signs of a cancerous mark include borders that are blurry or jagged, edges that aren’t symmetrical, uneven coloring, or large size. Early diagnosis of skin cancer means that treatment is easier, less invasive, and more likely to be successful.
Read more: 9 subtle signs you might have skin cancer
Go to a professional if you notice changes in your breasts
You probably already know that any sign of a lump or mass in your breast is cause to visit a doctor. But there are other changes to watch out for as well.
“Although unlikely, any changes in the nipple or areola can be a sign of breast cancer,” said Dr. Richard Reitherman, the medical director of breast imaging at MemorialCare Breast Center. “These include a retraction or inward pulling of any of these structures, discoloration, or a change in texture such as puffiness.”
You should also look for puckering or textural changes in the skin of your breast, discoloration, or unusual changes in size and do a breast self-examination every month.
Speak to a doctor if you notice blood in your urine
- Koldunova Anna/Shutterstock
“Bloody urine is a red-flag sign of possible kidney or bladder cancer,” Varner said. “It is usually painless and often comes and goes. If your urine is bloody, you need a medical evaluation.”
Bloody urine can also be caused by an untreated bladder or kidney infection, which has more noticeable symptoms, including nausea and back pain.
Rapid and unexplained weight loss could be a red flag
If you haven’t changed anything about your diet or activity levels but are noticing that your weight is dropping, schedule a doctor’s appointment.
“If you’re losing weight without trying, then you need to see your doctor,” Kirby said. “Unexplained weight loss could indicate a hormone imbalance or even cancer.”