Knowing when you should see a doctor isn’t always easy. Here are 7 symptoms you should never ignore to help you make the right call for your health.
1. Skin problems
It’s not only teenagers who suffer from acne. ‘It can be one of the symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS),’ says dermatologist Professor Nick Lowe. But your GP can arrange blood tests and an ovarian scan. Be vigilant about any changes to your skin. ‘Check moles, paying attention to any with an asymmetrical shape, irregular border, any larger than 0.6 cm in diameter or those with an elevated surface,’ advises Dr Lowe. ‘Any change can be a warning sign of malignant melanoma.’
As many as one in 10 of us suffer symptoms of gastro-oesophageal reflux, like heartburn, on a monthly basis. ‘In most cases, there’s no underlying cause,’ says gastroenterologist Dr Jonathan Hoare. ‘But, if the symptoms are really frequent, ask your GP to refer you to a specialist.’
The list of causes is wide ranging. A hiatus hernia, where part of the stomach pushes into your diaphragm, a bacterial infection of the gut, a stomach ulcer and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, where the sensitive lining of the oesophagus becomes inflamed, can be at the root of bouts of indigestion. All can be effectively treated with the right medication and lifestyle changes.
Pain is your body’s way of saying something’s wrong. Usually, it’s gone as soon as you pop a couple of over-the-counter painkillers. But if your pain is sudden, severe and unusually persistent, or recurs for more than a month, you must see a doctor. ‘If you develop a sudden and intense headache that doesn’t respond to painkillers, see a doctor as soon as possible,’ says GP, Dr Jack Edmonds. ‘It could be a sign of a brain aneurysm or even haemorrhage.’
A piercing pain that radiates from the middle to the right side of your abdomen could indicate appendicitis, particularly if you have nausea and a fever. And an excruciating pain on either side of your lower abdomen could be a ruptured cyst. Kidney stones cause intense pain in the back, side or groin, while gallstones can cause pain in the centre or upper right of your abdomen. If you have pain, redness and swelling in your calf, get checked out for deep vein thrombosis immediately.
4. Bowels not working properly
The idea of paying close attention to what’s going on with your bowels isn’t appealing, let’s face it! But bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in women, after breast cancer, and awareness is key to catching and treating it early.
‘Symptoms to look out for include bleeding from the back passage, or blood in your stools, abdominal pain, fatigue, constipation or unexplained weight loss,’ says Dr Jonathan Hoare. ‘If you have any concerns, make an appointment with your GP who will arrange for bowel-cancer screening.’ But similar symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating and constipation, as well as cramps, spasms and diarrhoea, could also be an indication that you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
‘Although IBS is the most common cause of bowel disturbance, doctors still don’t understand exactly what causes it and there’s no definitive treatment,’ says Professor Nick Read. ‘For some people, stress is a trigger, so complementary therapies and relaxation techniques can help.’
5. Shortness of breath
‘Breathlessness which isn’t caused by exercise or exertion may be a sign of an underlying health condition,’ says Dr David Simcock. He says it’s not unusual to experience your first asthma attack as an adult, and there are a range of triggers, from allergies to cold and flu viruses. Once diagnosed, doctors can prescribe drugs to prevent them in future.
Shortness of breath can be the first sign of anaphylactic shock, triggered by a particular food or an insect sting, for example. Adrenaline is the antidote, and GPs can prescribe an emergency adrenaline shot in the form of an EpiPen. In very rare cases, shortness of breath, with a cough that lasts more than three weeks, could be a sign of lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an umbrella term for various lung diseases including bronchitis and emphysema. Ask your GP for a screening test and, if you smoke, enroll in a smoking cessation programme. For more details, go to smokenders.co.za.
6. Frequent colds and infections
‘If you’re getting more than two colds a year, your immune system isn’t as strong as it should be,’ says microbiologist Dr Margaret Ritchie. ‘Working hard, stress, not getting enough sleep or not eating properly can weaken your immune function and make you more susceptible.’
Viral infections are, of course, worth avoiding in themselves. But research shows that a weak immune system can lead to other, more serious health problems, too – including cancer. ‘Unlike a virus, cancer isn’t contagious, but some studies suggest that as many as 10% of cancers could be triggered by a virus,’ says Dr Ritchie.
You can improve your immunity by improving your diet, taking immune-boosting supplements like vitamin D3, vitamin C or echinacea, reducing your stress, getting more sleep and more exercise.
7. Not sleeping properly
Studies show that lack of sleep weakens the immune system and can lead to health problems, including high blood pressure, poor memory, depression, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. ‘Insomnia can be caused by stress and anxiety eating late and drinking alcohol,’ says Professor Kevin Morgan. So, exercise daily, avoid caffeine and ensure your bedroom is dark and airy, but not too hot or too cold. ‘If there isn’t any improvement in your sleep pattern, consider cognitive behavioural therapy to address any psychological barriers,’ says Professor Morgan.
If your problem is staying asleep or you don’t feel rested when you get up, you could be suffering from sleep apnoea, which periodically stops your breathing for a few seconds at a time. Being overweight, smoking and drinking make you far more susceptible to sleep apnoea, so address those issues first. In severe cases, the treatment involves a continuous positive airway pressure device – a device that aids breathing throughout the night.