Vitality - Healthy Aging NewsletterFall 2011

Six Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

Patricia Boiko, MD, a Group Health family physician who retired in late summer, recalls one patient who came in for a sore that wasn't healing on his upper back.

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"He was planning to wait for his annual exam, but said his wife wanted me to check it out sooner — even though he thought it was probably nothing," she says. "We removed it that day, and it turned out to be a squamous cell skin cancer. Because it was caught early, he was cured."

It's important to be aware of any changes in your body, she says, because early detection is often the key to successful treatment. If you have any of the following symptoms, call your doctor's office or, after hours, the Consulting Nurse Service. If it's an emergency, call 911 and arrange to get help immediately.

Persistent headache. If a headache is worse when lying down, persists on one side of the head, and is accompanied by vision problems, numbness, weakness, a stiff neck, or vomiting, it may signal an abnormality in or near the brain. A sudden, acute headache might indicate a cerebral aneurism. Get help right away.

Bruising and bleeding. Spontaneous bruises could be a sign of a clotting problem. Blood in the urine could indicate a kidney or bladder infection, or something more serious like kidney stones, or kidney or bladder cancer. Blood in the sputum might result from a nose bleed, but could also signal lung cancer, tuberculosis, or pneumonia. Blood in the stool might mean hemorrhoids (especially the first time), colon or rectal cancer, Crohn's disease, or diverticulitis. Black and tarry stools can also indicate bleeding in the stomach or colon. If you experience weakness, faintness, and sweating along with large amounts of blood, get help immediately.

Unintended weight loss. If your weight drops more than a few pounds over a few weeks or months, call your doctor. You may have an overactive thyroid, depression, cancer, or diabetes — which is generally accompanied by excessive thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, blurred vision, or persistent sores.

Chest pain. If you feel pressure in the middle of your chest that radiates out toward your jaw or either shoulder, call 911 and take an aspirin to prevent clotting. One aspirin taken early in the course of a heart attack can significantly improve your chances of survival.

Sores that won't heal or mole changes. Sores that don't heal after a normal period of time can indicate an illness of the immune or circulatory systems, such as HIV/AIDS or diabetes. They might also signal skin cancer (the same is true of unusual-looking moles or moles that change or turn black or brown). In older people, persistent sores on the legs might indicate peripheral vascular disease and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.

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