Health & Wellness
12 Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

12 Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

By Julie Edwards

Aches and pains can be a natural part of aging, but sometimes that persistent problem may be more serious than you realize. We asked Atlanta-area medical experts for their insights into the top symptoms worth checking out, each symptom’s significance and when to seek medical care;

1-Shortness of breath

Outside of typical exercise, feeling shortness of breath could signal chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma, heart problems, anxiety, panic attacks, pneumonia, a blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism), pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension. If you find you’re unable to get your breath, or you’re gasping for air or wheezing, seek emergency medical care

2-Numbness/weakness on one side of your body or lapses of sight or speech

These signs could be symptoms of a stroke or TIA (transient ischemic attack). “This is a life-threatening emergency—even if you only have one symptom or your symptoms go away, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department immediately,” says Keith A. Sanders, M.D., medical director of the stroke program at Saint Joseph’s Hospital.

There is only one FDA-approved treatment for a stroke, which is tPA, a clot buster, Dr. Sanders adds. This medication can only be given within 3 hours of the onset of symptoms, and calling 911 immediately will expedite the workup needed for treatment.

3-Persistent fever

Persistent fever can signal hidden infections, malignant conditions such as lymphomas or reactions to certain drugs. A low-grade fever—higher than 100.4 F—should be checked if it lasts for a week or more. If you have a fever with shaking chills, or a high fever that is greater than 103 F, see your doctor as soon as possible.

4-Unexplained changes in bowel habits

Changes in bowel habits may signal a bacterial infection or a viral or parasitic infection. Other possible causes include inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer. If you have any of the following symptoms, see your doctor immediately: Severe diarrhea lasting more than 2 days, mild diarrhea lasting a week, constipation that lasts for more than 2 weeks, bloody diarrhea or black or tarry-colored stools.

5-Sharp pain in lower abdomen

“Lower abdominal pain is one of the most frequent complaints in my office,” says William D. Lyday II, M.D., gastroenterologist and director of the Atlanta Health Institute. “In patients under 50, the most common causes are IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or gynecological problems such as ovarian cysts or endometriosis.”

“In patients over 50, there is more concern for underlying cancers: Colon, prostate and uterine/ cervical cancers,” he continues. “It’s also important to note if [the pain] is associated with any other symptoms such as tenderness to touch, pain with certain movements, unusual bowel activity, blood in stool, fever/chills, or weight loss.”

New or severe pain, particularly when associated with fever or abdominal tenderness, warrants a visit to the emergency room. “You may have a severe infection or a surgical condition such as appendicitis that needs immediate attention,” Dr. Lyday says. Pain that has been occurring off and on for a longer period of time can be evaluated by your physician during a routine office visit, he adds.

6-Recurrent cough

Will Reese of Smyrna suffered from a persistent cough for a year before being diagnosed with acid reflux. Dr. Brian K. Nadolne, M.D., chair of Family Medicine at Northside Hospital, adds that other causes can include asthma, whooping cough or an infection. Dr. Nadolne recommends following up with your physician as soon as possible, and when you speak to your physician, telling him or her when your cough began, the quality and the frequency of the cough, if you have started any new medicines and if you smoke.

7-Persistent lower leg pain

If your legs constantly ache, it could be a sign of a serious vascular condition. Leg pain also can indicate lower back problems. According to Laura Beaty, M.D., with Alliance Primary Care in Sandy Springs, here are the specific symptoms to look for:

Deep venous thrombosis (DVT): Swelling in one leg with pain

Venous stasis disease: Swelling in both legs with pain

Neuropathy: Numbness in one or both legs and/or feet

Peripheral vascular disease: Worsening pain with exertion that resolves with rest

Lower back: Shooting pain, which can indicate a herniated disc

“Seek immediate attention if you suspect DVT,” Dr. Beaty says. “For all other symptoms, seek care from your primary care physician within 1 week.”

According to information from, it’s not uncommon for deep vein thrombosis to occur with no symptoms. In fact, in about half of all cases, there are no noticeable symptoms.

8-Hot, red or swollen joint

These warning signs may occur with a joint infection, which requires emergency care to keep bacteria from spreading elsewhere. Other causes may include gout or certain types of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis.

9-Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite

“A broad range of causes can result in loss of appetite or weight loss,” Dr. Lyday says. “The most important factor indicating a need for medical evaluation is significant weight loss—losing 10 or more pounds for no apparent reason is a cause for concern.”

Causes of significant weight loss could include hormonal disturbances such as thyroid disease, underlying cancers, HIV and major depression. “A loss of appetite and weight loss also is usually associated with other symptoms,” Dr. Lyday adds. “For example, underlying cancers may have more severe weight loss, signs of bleeding, fatigue and low blood counts.”

Unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite always requires an evaluation by the doctor—a visit to the internist or family doctor is a good idea and should not be put off.

10-Pain or ache in the chest, jaw, shoulder or arm

Symptoms including pain or discomfort in the neck, shoulder, arms and back strongly point to onset of a heart attack, says Kate Heilpern, M.D., chair of the department of Emergency Medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine.

“In many heart attacks, symptoms can start slowly, as a mild pain or discomfort, and may subside for a short time,” she adds. “But it’s important to call 911 immediately when they occur—seconds absolutely matter and calling 911 is without question the fastest way to get lifesaving treatment.”

Dr. Heilpern says additional symptoms can include chest discomfort such as pressure, squeezing or pain. Also, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, lightheadedness and/or sweating may be present.

11-Painful urination

According to Scott Miller, M.D., urologist and director of Laparoscopic and Robotic Services at Northside Hospital, the most common cause of painful urination is a urinary tract infection; however, sexually transmitted diseases also can cause this symptom, and other sources include kidney stones, trauma and even cancer.

Dr. Miller adds that painful urination can occur alone or in combination with a frequent urge to urinate, blood in the urine or difficulty emptying the bladder.  “Depending on the degree of symptoms, care should be sought within 12 to 24 hours of onset,” he says. “Painful urination can become increasingly difficult to treat when medical attention is delayed.  Although seeing your primary care provider is always the best first step, timely care may be more available from an urgent care center.” If these measures prove to be unsuccessful, or the symptoms tend to recur, Dr. Miller advises seeking care from a specialist.

12-Feeling full after eating very little

Feeling full sooner than normal after eating and having persistent nausea and vomiting that last more than a week are warning signs that should be checked by your doctor. Possible causes include pancreatic, stomach or ovarian cancer.

Content not attributed to specific physicians was compiled from information on