Health Symptoms That Are Serious Red Flags

When experiencing worrying health symptoms, what do you do? Do you do something about it, or do you perhaps wait for it to pass? Oftentimes, people will downplay the severity of a symptom because they think the symptom isn't a big deal or because they think they are perfectly healthy.

According to a 2014 report in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, doctors consistently encounter patients who have problems that if left untreated could lead to very serious complications. The authors of the report stressed the importance of identifying red flags and making your primary care doctor aware of your symptoms.

Still, some people hesitate when it comes to letting their doctors know about concerning health problems. They may even brush off the idea of going to an emergency room or urgent care facility because they think that there is little concern. But it is always wise to take action if you or someone you love is experiencing a new or very serious health change. Keep reading to learn the red flags you should never ignore.

Chest pain is a symptom that should never be ignored

You have probably heard embarrassing stories from people who've had chest pain and thought it was a heart attack only to be told at the hospital that the health symptom they were actually experiencing was merely heartburn. According to Harvard Heart Letter, millions of Americans go to their local ER every year for chest pain, but only around 20 percent are diagnosed with a heart attack or other heart problem.

It is possible for heartburn to feel like serious chest pain, but only a doctor can assess you correctly (via Harvard Health Letter). Heart attacks can be sudden, severe, and fatal — and anyone can have a heart attack, regardless of age. The potential for embarrassment should never deter you from prioritizing your health. Plus, chest pain is a sign of many other health conditions, which can be serious and life-threatening. For example, a pulmonary embolism — a sudden blockage in the lung, usually caused by a clot — causes chest pain and can be fatal (via Medline Plus).

You should never ignore chest pain. Always err on the side of caution and call your doctor or head to your local emergency room even if your chest pain is mild.

Shortness of breath could be serious

Shortness of breath, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, makes you feel as if you can't get enough air. Your chest might also feel tight or you might feel winded. Feeling out of breath during exercise can be a normal part of working out, of course. Additionally, shortness of breath can be a symptom of anxiety or panic attacks (via Johns Hopkins Medicine). Nevertheless, shortness of breath can also be a serious red flag.

According to Dr. Jason Fritz, a pulmonologist at Penn Medicine, "Sudden onset of shortness of breath may indicate something quite serious requiring immediate medical attention, such as a heart attack, a blood clot in the lungs or a problem with the aorta."

Reach out to your doctor if you find you are consistently experiencing shortness of breath. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you have shortness of breath that is accompanied by chest pain or that "comes on suddenly and affects your ability to function" (via Mayo Clinic).

Don't ignore any symptom specific to a stroke or mini-stroke

You have probably heard this before: "During a stroke, every minute counts!" It's true, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; "fast treatment can lessen the brain damage that stroke can cause."

Signs of stroke include sudden confusion, sudden numbness (in the face, in an arm or leg, or on one side of the body), difficulty speaking or understanding speech, not being able to see well in one or both eyes, sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, and severe headache (via CDC). You should call 911 for yourself or someone else experiencing one or more of these health symptoms.

Mini-strokes — called transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) — are often brushed aside. But much like strokes, symptoms of a TIA shouldn't be ignored. Signs and symptoms of a TIA resemble those of a stroke and will come on suddenly. However, it will generally go away within an hour and rarely last longer than a day (via Medline Plus). TIAs can be a red flag signaling a future stroke and should never be ignored. A person who has a TIA should talk to their doctor about the best ways to prevent a stroke.

Pay close attention to gastrointestinal symptoms

Stomach issues from time to time or occasional gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are usually nothing to worry about. However, some GI symptoms could signal a bigger problem. According to the Cleveland Clinic, GI symptoms can indicate infection, internal inflammation, or stomach bleeds that warrant immediate treatment. And any type of abdominal pain accompanied by more severe abdominal symptoms deserves an immediate call to your doctor.

Severe GI symptoms include breathing difficulties, not being able to keep food down for a few days, vomiting blood or having bloody stools, or persistent abdominal pain (lasting several days), per the Cleveland Clinic.

According to Healthline, other less severe GI symptoms that persist for days and weeks should be brought to your doctor's attention as well. These include constantly feeling full even after you have barely eaten, appetite loss or unexplained weight loss, gas and bloating, abdominal cramping and pain, diarrhea, constipation, and unusual stools (of abnormal color or odor). While these don't require immediate attention, they should be addressed sooner rather than later.

A severe headache can be a major red flag

Headaches are, unfortunately, a normal part of life for many. According to the World Health Organization, 50 percent of adults experience at least one headache a year. Fortunately, most headaches are harmless, and very few headache types are a sign of something serious, like a stroke.

Headaches can be a concern if you have no history of similar headaches, but as long as symptoms aren't severe, you can treat them with ibuprofen or another pain reliever. If you begin experiencing frequent headaches, though, you should make an appointment with your doctor to determine the type of headache, treatment, and potential triggers.

According to Harvard Men's Health Watch, headaches that require immediate medical attention are extremely painful ones that continue to get worse or worsen with movement. Headache accompanied by personality or mental function changes or include other symptoms like fever, a stiff neck, or visual disturbances also warrant a visit to the ER.

Certain vision changes need to be addressed promptly

Vision changes can simply be a normal part of getting older, but that's not true of all of them. That is why it's important to see an eye doctor every year and as issues arise. Dr. Michelle Ardreoli, an ophthalmologist and clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, told The Healthy, "Night driving is the best benchmark of when your vision is starting to drop off." Resolving this problem, she noted, might be as simple getting a new glasses prescription.

Double vision, however, is a more serious vision change. Dr. Andreoli explained that double vision could be a red flag of something dire, such as a stroke or a blood vessel problem that requires a trip to the emergency roomOther vision changes like blurry vision and light sensitivity shouldn't be ignored either. Many very serious health conditions that really have nothing to do with vision can cause these health symptoms. If you are consistently experiencing blurry vision or light sensitivity, make an appointment with an ophthalmologist.

Allergic reactions can quickly become life-threatening

For most people, allergies cause only mild symptoms, such as watery eyes, sneezing, or a rash. For others, however, exposure to an allergen can lead to anaphylaxis, a severe and life-threatening reaction. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), anaphylaxis happens when there is a significant chemical release that puts someone into shock. The allergen that has caused the reaction could be anything from food to an insect bite, or even medication.

A 2013 report in the journal Clinical Reviews in Allergy & Immunology found that up to 2 percent of Americans will experience anaphylaxis at least once in their lifetime. While anaphylaxis is rare, anyone — regardless of age or health status — can experience it. People who have other allergic conditions like asthma might have a higher risk.

If you have ever experienced a severe allergic reaction, you should talk to your doctor about ways to prevent anaphylaxis. They might refer you to an allergy specialist who will test you for allergies and give you advice on how to avoid particular allergens. You might also be prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) for emergency use in casee you have another anaphylaxis episode, according to the ACAAI.

Worsening depression should not be ignored

Depression is more than just feeling down or having a bad string of days. If you consistently feel sad or angry for over many weeks, you could have clinical depression, a type of depression that causes a persistent depressed mood. According to Johns Hopkins expert Dr. Andrew Angelino, who is also chair of psychiatry at Howard County General Hospital, "Depression is a disease that affects every aspect of a person's life, not just mood."

Depression can be draining — and it can put your health at risk. People who are depressed have a higher risk for other different chronic and serious illnesses, including heart disease (via Johns Hopkins Medicine). Untreated depression can lead to attempted suicide or suicide. Reach out to your doctor if you are not feeling like yourself. They can assess you and refer you to someone with a mental health background like a psychiatrist or a therapist. Depression is a treatable condition that you don't have to bear alone.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Back pain isn't always normal

Many people have back pain every now and then. Unfortunately, this pain is common as we age. Most of the time, though, back pain resolves on its own. Chronic back pain, on the other hand, is defined as back pain that lasts for 12 weeks or more, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. It may have an underlying cause, such as an injury or inflammatory arthritis (ankylosing spondylitis or psoriatic arthritis).

"Back or neck pain that's so severe that it's debilitating needs to be checked out by a physician," physician Alexis Tingan told Penn Medicine. "If you have significant pain when you do things you normally do, like exercise or work, make sure you see a physician." Some more serious health symptoms with back pain to watch out for are sharp pain, radiating pain that moves into the buttocks, sudden leg weakness, incontinence (inability to control the bladder or bowels), and numbness or pins or needles in the groin or buttocks.

You should also be aware of a condition called cauda equina syndrome (via NINDS). It causes back pain with leg weakness, incontinence, and numbness. This condition is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention to reduce permanent damage to the spinal cord.

A cough that won't quit might be a sign of something more serious

Coughing helps to remove particles, irritants, mucus, and other substances from the lungs, as the American Lung Association explained. A person might cough because of an irritant in the air or because they are congested from the common cold or respiratory illness. In general, coughing related to these two things is healthy, and most coughs don't require treatment.

Although rare, a chronic cough can be associated with lung cancer or a lung infection (via Harvard Health Blog). Most prolonged coughs are due to one or more from a group of typical things like allergies, asthma, heartburn, smoking, or as a side effect of medication. Still, it is always a good idea to get a chronic cough checked out — especially one that has lasted three or more weeks (via Medical News Today).

Subacute coughs (lasting three to eight weeks) and chronic coughs (lasting over eight weeks) could be a sign of something more serious and require medical attention, according to Medical News Today. It is especially important to see your doctor for a cough that is accompanied by other serious symptoms, including coughing up blood, shortness of breath, fever, dizziness, and weight loss.

Belly button pain that is severe could be dangerous

Most health conditions associated with belly button pain are mild and treatable. However, there are some causes that could be serious or even life-threatening. Serious causes of belly button pain include gallstones, appendicitis, and pancreatitis. A condition like appendicitis can be dangerous or even fatal (via Cleveland Clinic). It could lead to a rupture of the appendix and a serious infection called peritonitis. Appendix pain will start around the belly button and radiate into the abdomen, and the pain will worsen with movement.

According to Healthline, some people might experience simple bloating and pulling while others could have sharp belly button pain. The publication recommends letting your doctor know about the type of pain and any additional health symptoms you may be experiencing. Additionally, some symptoms warrant immediate medical attention, including vomiting blood, constant pain lasting more than four hours, pain with activity, shortness of breath, and blood in the stool. If you experience frequent belly button pain without any of these symptoms, it is still a good idea to reach out to your doctor so they can determine the source of the pain.

Yellowing skin or eyes should be evaluated by a doctor ASAP

Jaundice, the yellowing of the skin of eyes, is a symptom of several medical conditions. The yellow color is due to too much bilirubin, a yellow-orange substance found in the blood (via Cleveland Clinic). When people think of jaundice, they often think it's something only newborns get. But jaundice can affect adults too.

If you think you might have jaundice, you should see your doctor right away as it can be a symptom of liver, blood, or gallbladder problems, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Some conditions that cause jaundice include hepatitis, alcohol-induced liver disease, pancreatic cancer, and blocked bile ducts.

According to Harvard Health, every case of jaundice needs to be assessed by a doctor because it is usually a sign of something serious. You should call your doctor right away. Chances are they will want to see you quickly to evaluate you, or they may recommend that you head to the nearest emergency room.

Water retention can point to something more serious

The human body is mostly water, but sometimes, there is just too much of it. Too much fluid in the body is called water retention, or edema, and it can cause swelling and puffiness, a report published on explained. Water retention can be triggered by any number of things — some serious and others not. Common culprits of water retention include a diet high in salt, too much sitting or standing, hormone levels, and medications to treat other conditions. More serious causes of water retention include heart, kidney, or liver problems.

While many conditions cause water retention, people with a history of heart failure should be especially concerned. Dr. Eldrin Lewis, a heart failure specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told Harvard Heart Letter "Fluid buildup can quickly escalate into a life-threatening situation." This is because heart failure could lead to progressive heart weakness, which eventually prompts the body to retain fluid and sodium as the body is trying to boost its blood volume. Because fluid retention can accompany some serious and life-threatening conditions, it is an important symptom to discuss with your doctor. 

Extreme fatigue and exhaustion could compromise your safety

Extreme fatigue is described as "lingering tiredness that is constant and limiting," according to WebMD. "It's similar to how you feel when you have the flu or have missed a lot of sleep." Fatigue isn't a specific illness; rather it is a symptom of many different conditions. Some of these conditions are treatable and manageable and include ailments like allergies, depression, fibromyalgia, and autoimmune disorders.

Dr. Matthew Goldman, a family medicine doctor, told the Cleveland Clinic that fatigue that affects your health and safety is a concern. For example, if you are falling asleep in situations that require you to be alert, like driving, this is problematic. Signs that fatigue might be related to a health condition include lack of energy, inability to stay awake, becoming easily tired, inability to start or complete tasks, and difficulty with concentration, memory, or emotional health (via Cleveland Clinic). If you experience one or more of these symptoms, reach out to your doctor so that they can determine the source and treat you appropriately.