When it comes to our bodies, there are many harmless symptoms we know are innocent and don’t have to worry about. However, there are a number of warning signs from your body you shouldn’t ignore, as they can be a sign that there’s actually a bigger problem. Not every illness is always obvious, so knowing what changes you need to pay attention to can make all the difference in preserving your health.
“Pain is there to tell us something is wrong — stop what you are doing, and either rest or get help,” says Dr. Carolyn Givens, MD over email. “Pain is one of the most obvious signals our bodies give us that says: pay attention! Besides the obvious example of pain, changes from the usual patterns of the body’s rhythms may be a signal that something isn’t right. Significant changes in sleep quality, urinary frequency or bowel habits, appetite, or mental functioning, just to name a few, can all be potential signs of acute illness or a slower decline of one’s health.”
Just because you have a warning sign doesn’t necessarily mean something is terribly wrong, but you’re better off getting it checked — better safe than sorry. Here are 11 health warning signs that women should never ignore.
“An occasional skipped or heavy period aside, abnormal bleeding means possibly serious changes like polyps, tumors, or even cancer as you get beyond 35 years of age,” says Steve Vasilev MD, medical director of Integrative Gynecologic Oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center over email. “Spotting between periods may mean pregnancy. Bleeding after sex, or post-coital bleeding, may be a sign of infection (cervicitis), pre-cancer or even cervical cancer.”
Clear or whitish, milky discharge from both breasts is common during childbearing years. “However, if the discharge is spontaneous, is from only one breast, is brownish or bloody, or you also feel a mass, this may be more serious,” says Vasilev. “Conditions include benign growths called intraductal papillomas, which may require surgical removal, or even breast cancer.”
Headaches can be caused by a number of harmless factors, but if you have one that is particularly intense, you’ll want to get it checked out. “‘The worst headache of my life’ is often how patients describe a headache is very severe,” says family physician Dr. Jen Caudle over email. “This headache can be very serious and be caused by central nervous system infection or intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain).”
“If you ever have a bowel movement and notice blood in your stool, this is something you simply can’t ignore,” says Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, MD, MS over email. “Bloody stools can serve as a sign of gastrointestinal tract bleeding. If you experience bloody stools coupled with symptoms of weakness, dizziness, or shortness of breath, you need to see a doctor immediately.”
Not all chest pain means a heart attack, but you’re better safe than sorry. “Chest pain or pressure with associated symptoms of nausea, sweating, difficulty breathing, or radiation of the pain to the jaw or neck warrants immediate medical attention,” says Okeke-Igbokwe.
“A sudden drop in your weight without even trying may suggest an underlying malignancy,” says Okeke-Igbokwe. This can be a symptom of certain forms of cancer or other serious conditions, such as issues with your hormone levels.
You should see a dermatologist if your mole starts changing color, getting bigger, itching, or bleeding. “It is important to have your brown spots checked by a board-certified dermatologist,” says Debra Jaliman MD over email. You should also see a doctor if you have a mole that looks different than all of the rest.
Sometimes a stomach ache is just a stomach ache and a cramp is just a cramp, but if you’ve got a sharp pain on your side, it could be something worse, like appendicitis. Dull pain near the navel or the upper or lower abdomen that becomes sharp as it moves to the lower right abdomen is the most common symptom, according to WebMD.
“Some pain during periods or during ovulation can be normal, even if it’s uncomfortable,” says Vasilev. “The ovaries can grow tumors, but even benign ovarian cysts can produce pain and bleed internally. Especially if you also have other symptoms like malaise, fever, changes in bowel habits or bleeding, it’s time to get checked out.”
“A small amount of whitish or clear and non-foul smelling vaginal discharge is totally normal and simply means your vagina is cleansing itself,” says Vasilev. “It may increase a little with ovulation, use of oral contraceptives, sexual arousal, or stress. But if you develop a lot of white discharge, or if it is yellow-green, foul, or accompanied by vaginal itching or pain, it probably means an infection.” This could be anything from a yeast infection, to an STI, or even cervical cancer.
Leg pain can seem harmless, but it could be a sign of a blood clot, especially if it’s just in one leg and accompanied by swelling, according to Everyday Health. It’s possible for a life-threatening pulmonary embolism to occur when a blood clot moves from one part of your body to your lungs and blocks a vital artery there, so get this type of pain checked out right away.
Remember, even if it’s nothing serious, you’re better off getting checked so that if there really is something wrong, you can get it treated.
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