You know that problems like chest pain or trouble breathing warrant immediate medical care. But there are other symptoms that, while easier to brush off, still deserve prompt attention.
"Many chronic serious illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease often go undiagnosed for months to years as they are often not associated with severe symptoms," says Christopher Davis, MD, an interventional cardiologist in private practice in Sarasota, Florida. "This can result in a false sense of comfort when it comes to our overall health."
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So what kinds of mild symptoms are worth bringing up with the doctor? Here are eight common ones that often get ignored — but shouldn't.
1. Exhaustion That Won't Ease Up
Occasionally feeling sluggish when you're short on sleep isn't cause for concern. But fatigue that won't ease up or gets in the way of your everyday activities could be a sign of a common illness (think: the flu). It could also be a sign of Lyme disease, Epstein-Barr virus or strep, Dr. Davis says.
Feeling low energy can also be a sign of mental health problems, especially if its accompanied by a loss of interest in the things you usually enjoy, says David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "When these symptoms persist for more than two weeks, the diagnosis of depression needs to be considered."
2. Unexplained Weight Gain
Often a few extra pounds can be chalked up to snacking more than usual or an indulgent vacation. (There are even times when weight gain can be completely normal.) When you really can't figure out where the weight is coming from, though, it's a good idea to talk with your doctor. In some cases unintentional weight gain can be caused by an underactive thyroid or Cushing syndrome, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It could also be related to hormonal changes caused by pregnancy or menopause.
Sometimes excess weight is actually the result of swelling or fluid buildup. That's often related to normal hormone changes which can happen while a person is menstruating. But in some cases, weight gain caused by fluid buildup could be triggered by serious problems like heart disease, kidney failure or pregnancy complicated like preeclampsia, the NIH notes.
3. Chronic Pain
Increasing aches and pains are common as we age. Sometimes they're the result of natural wear and tear or problems like arthritis. In other instances, the pain could be the result of an autoimmune condition or other systemic illness. Figuring out the culprit isn't always easy, but paying attention to other symptoms you might be experiencing can help.
4. Feeling Out of Breath When Exercising
Suddenly getting more winded than usual during your normal workouts doesn't mean you fell out of shape overnight.
It's possible that your shortness of breath is actually caused by adult-onset asthma, especially if it's associated with more frequent coughing, wheezing or chest tightness, per the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (ACAAI).
In rare instances, feeling short of breath when you work out or exert yourself could be subtle signs of heart disease, Dr. Cutler says. "These subtle symptoms are more likely to be significant in someone at increased risk for cardiovascular disease due to high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes," he says.
Tossing and turning night after night may mean you need to work on your sleep hygiene. But it could also be a sign of thyroid problems, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, or in rare cases, even neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Don't discount the ways that mental health can affect sleep either. Three-quarters of people with depression have trouble falling or staying asleep, per Johns Hopkins Medicine. If your insomnia is accompanied by other signs of depression or anxiety, talk with a mental health professional.
6. Brain Fog
Slow, sluggish thinking or an inability to focus can stem from sleep deprivation or a concussion, and can also be a side effect of certain medications. Sometimes though, it is caused by an underlying health problem.
"It could be related to a hormonal imbalance, infections, toxins, micronutrient deficiencies, gut dysbiosis or neurotransmitter problems," Dr. Davis says. "Often times brain fog associated with these conditions will have accompanying symptoms like extreme fatigue, headache, body aches, anxiety and depression."
With so many possible culprits, it's worth seeing your doctor to figure out what could be going on.
7. Numbness or Tingling
A pins-and-needles sensation — or no sensation at all — in your hands, fingers, feet or toes that sticks around is worth paying attention to. It's possible the feeling could be related to undermanaged diabetes, an underactive thyroid or nerve problems like carpal tunnel syndrome, per the NIH.
Numbness or tingling can also be a sign of a heart attack, even if you aren't experiencing chest pain, Dr. Cutler points out.
8. Excessive Sweating
Heavy perspiration isn't just annoying. If you're sweating when you aren't exercising and it's not hot out, it could be a sign of thyroid problems, diabetes, nervous system disorders, infections, or in rare cases, cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic.
For many people assigned female at birth (AFAB) in their 40s, 50s and 60s, unexplained or sudden sweating could also be related to hot flashes from menopause.
When to Contact Your Doctor
Having one of these symptoms doesn't automatically mean that you have a serious disease, so try not to panic. But when an unusual health problem pops up out of nowhere and persists, it's worth getting it checked out. Together, you and your doctor can discuss your symptoms and determine what kinds of tests are needed.
- National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine: "Weight gain – unintentional"
- American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology: "Adult-Onset Asthma"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Insomnia"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Depression and Sleep: Understanding the Connection"
- National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine: "Numbness and tingling"
- Mayo Clinic: "Hyperhidrosis"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Influenza"
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Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.