Symptoms to Check

9 Symptoms We Shouldn't Ignore
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Certain health warning signs are well known -- like chest pain (heart attack), fever (infection), yellow eyes (jaundice), and irregular moles (skin cancer). But other concerning symptoms often get overlooked. Though they're common indicators of important health problems, people find them easier to dismiss or ignore.

"I find that many people feel too busy to have a seemingly minor complaint looked into," says San Francisco internist and geriatrician Leslie Kernisan, who is also's senior medical editor. "But a regular doctor's visit can often lay the issue to rest. With a little investigation, we can figure out whether there really is something to worry about, and, if so, treat."

Here, nine often-overlooked symptoms that warrant a medical checkup:

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Overlooked symptom #1: Sleepy during the day (for no reason)

Stress or "burning the candle at both ends" (late to bed, early to rise) can leave anyone yawning midday. So can insomnia, where you awaken and just can't get back to sleep. But sleep deprivation for these reasons is different from the all-day-long fatigue -- even to the point of nodding off -- that you might feel even when you believe you had a decent night's sleep. It's especially concerning if feeling tired and unable to concentrate strikes you day after day, and you can't fathom why.

Could indicate: Sleep apnea. This sleep disorder occurs when the soft tissues at the back of the throat disrupt normal breathing patterns. Unable to get oxygen, the body struggles for breath and you wake up briefly -- perhaps not enough to notice, except that this pattern occurs over and over, for hours, affecting overall sleep.

What else to notice: You may also have sleep apnea if you snore, especially if the snoring is loud or uneven, or erupts in snorts, or if you awaken with a sore throat or headache. Anyone can develop sleep apnea, but being overweight puts you at higher risk.

Overlooked symptom #2: For men, erectile dysfunction

It's not that men don't notice difficulty getting or maintaining an erection, of course. The problem is that they tend to consider impotence an emotional matter rather than a physical one. Or they get the immediate problem treated (with Viagra, for example) without having the underlying causes evaluated or treated.

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Could indicate: Heart disease. Impotence is a hallmark sign of cardiovascular disease in men. In fact, men with erectile dysfunction are twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease or to die of a heart attack, according to a 2010 study of more than 1,500 men in the journal Circulation.

What else to notice: There may be no other symptoms, because penile arteries are smaller, so system-wide arterial problems often show up there sooner -- making the erectile dysfunction a kind of distant early-warning system. In other (typically more advanced) cases, the man has other symptoms consistent with cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Having diabetes, being overweight, smoking, and inactivity are other risk factors, as is age. (Although men of any age with erectile dysfunction can develop heart disease.)

Overlooked symptom #3: For women, excessive hair growth

Both men and women have hair all over their bodies, including the face. But it typically grows in differing patterns. In a woman, it's unusual for coarse hairs to sprout on the face, chest, belly, or around the nipples. Some women who develop facial hair growth feel a need to shave several times a day.

Could indicate: Polycycstic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This hormonal imbalance isn't completely understood but is linked to changes in the levels of estrogen, progesterone, and especially androgen (a male hormone). The ovaries fail to release eggs and instead form small ovarian cysts. Infertility can result. As many as one in 10 to one in 20 American women are thought to have it, according to government data.

What else to notice: Other male-like PCOS symptoms include weight gain, decreased breast size, an enlarged clitoris, thinning hair or even balding, and a deepening voice. A hallmark symptom is irregular periods or the loss of periods after they'd begun during puberty. Acne may also worsen. Women with PCOS often also have diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol and are overweight.

Overlooked symptom #4: Unintentional weight loss

This isn't the kind of weight loss that results from diligent exercise and bypassing the office vending machine. It's the kind you notice when you hug your dad and he feels thinner, or you find yourself surprised to be cutting new notches in your belt.

Could indicate: Cancer. Unexplained weight loss (roughly ten pounds in a month) is a common warning sign of cancer. It can also indicate a possible thyroid problem.

What else to notice: With cancer, there are often other accompanying symptoms, such as (depending on the type of cancer) persistent pain, bloating, indigestion, or other sensations of something "not right." Other symptoms of hyperthyroid disease include fatigue and insomnia.

Overlooked symptom #5: Persistent cough

Everybody gets a cough now and then. And some cold-type irritations can linger for weeks. But if a cough wasn't necessarily triggered by a cold and never seems to go away, another kind of respiratory problem may be at its root.

Could indicate: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, more commonly known by its acronym, COPD. Once called emphysema, this group of progressive lung diseases starts as a chronic cough that may not seem worrisome but represents permanent lung damage already taking place. Less commonly, a new chronic cough can be the first sign of lung cancer.

What else to notice: The other hallmark symptom of COPD is shortness of breath on exertion (climbing stairs, for example). Occasional wheezing and tightness of breath are other symptoms. Smokers are at high risk for COPD and lung cancer. Lung cancer may bring on a bloody cough, frequent bouts of pneumonia, or weight loss.

Overlooked symptom #6: Frequent urination

Running to the bathroom more than you used to? Some people write this off to an "aging bladder" -- if they pay any attention at all. But if the problem is a recent one, your body may be trying to tell you something.

Could indicate: Diabetes. Too much glucose in the blood can trigger a need to urinate often as the kidneys struggle to draw water out of the body in order to help them filter the glucose. Frequent urination is a warning sign of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

What else to notice: With diabetes, other symptoms include extreme thirstiness (again, as the body works to get rid of excess glucose), weakness, fatigue, blurry vision, and a tingling sensation in the fingers or toes.

(Especially in women, a sudden onset of frequent urination can also indicate a urinary tract infection. In men, it's also an indicator of possible prostate problems.)

Overlooked symptom #7: Slipping, falling, and losing your balance a lot

Everybody can take a tumble. But slipping or falling into things often isn't normal, even for a self-proclaimed klutz. Nor is losing your balance something that happens to every older adult. Yet people often fail to connect these "accidents" with an underlying problem.

Could indicate: A neurological problem. Many different things can cause wiring problems that result in a loss of balance and falls, including motor diseases (such as Parkinson's), autoimmune diseases (such as multiple sclerosis), and diabetic neuropathy (caused by diabetes).

What else to notice: People with neurological disorders may also notice muscle weakness, numbness or tingling, twitching, or pain, though the exact constellation of symptoms depends on what's wrong. It's also worth noting whether the person falling has started a new medication recently. Many medications that affect balance include over-the-counter sleep aids and some medications used by people with dementia.

Overlooked symptom #8: Chronic constipation

By itself, a single episode of constipation -- infrequent bowel movements -- falls under the category "Major Annoyances," not "Something to Stress About." It's a myth, for example, that everyone should have a bowel movement every day. (Many people do fine with three a week, and some people occasionally can manage once a week, depending on diet, doctors say.) But when constipation becomes a frequent problem, it's worth looking into possible physical causes.

Could indicate: Colon growths or colorectal cancer. Growths in the colon can cause a narrowing or blockage, leading to the constipation. That's why problems with bowel movements are a red flag for cancerous or precancerous polyps.

What else to notice: Obsess less about how long a single bout of constipation goes on than whether the episodes of being unable to pass stool are happening more often. Also notice whether the constipation persists even after making adjustments to diet (consuming more liquids and fiber). Other warning signs of colon cancer: seeing blood in the stool, very long and thin stool, weight loss, stomach pain, or nausea and bloating.

9: Discomfort in chest, neck, and arms when you exercise

Most adults know something's not right when someone experiences crushing chest pain. But another, more diffuse pain pattern is more often discounted: discomfort that spreads from the chest to the neck and arms, especially after doing something vigorous like yard work or climbing stairs.

Could indicate: Coronary artery disease (CAD), also called coronary heart disease. The diffuse pattern of discomfort often affects women, who are less likely than men to have classic chest pain, the typical presentation of heart disease. As the arteries harden and narrow due to cholesterol buildup and other factors, the blood can't freely travel through them, leading to chest pain (angina) and heart attack. Coronary artery disease is the most common cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women.

What else to notice: Heart attack can strike out of the blue in someone without apparent symptoms, but, more typically, there's a preceding pattern of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, or physical inactivity. Smokers and heavy drinkers are at higher risk, too.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

about 3 years, said...

Best written and most comprehensive article I have ever seen on this site Thank you. There is so much to take from it.

about 3 years, said...

good article ; what to do if often losing balance ---posibly due sleep medication ( alprazolam) or brain overwork for long

about 4 years, said...

I found it very interesting. Learn things that I wasn't to sure about.I

about 4 years, said...

Being 72 and still thinking I'm 30 has it's downside . I'm still having a difficult time adjusting to the fact that I'm getting on in years and can't do all the things I once did. Depression has been a constant companion for a good part of my life. There have been breaks for several months to a year but something will set it off and I fall into that deep dark hole again. Medication sometimes helps but the feeling of being useless is creeping in more often then it used to. My wife try's to be supportive as she can but I know it's tiring at time for her to deal with this long face of mine. I'll keep fighting for as long as I've got and hopefully the remaining years will be a little more bright. Thanks for the articles, they do give more insight for this generation. Paul Jackson

about 4 years, said...

My Girl friend is over weight, Sleeps a lot, snores, she is depressed because she cannot find work. She is intelligent. but doesn't like anybody to tell her what to do. I have sleep apnea, I want her to change her lifestyle some. Is there anything I can do to get her to change her life style?

about 4 years, said...

I do not have that but my boyfriend does and it is just awful. I feel for those who have this disease. He finally found a dentist who made him these denture looking devices that he puts in his mouth over the teeth, for he takes very good care of his teeth. He soaks them in a solution of hydrogen peroxide which in full strength I feel is a negative and told him as a professional dental patient, ;o) that he could mix half water with this peroxide for plastic is porous and absorbs the peroxide throughout the night. which then during the hours of the night time this is absorbed in the soft tissue of the gums and roof and tongue , tonsils all mouth tissue...just like bleaching dentures, it is ok to bleach once a month, or week but not every day for it will eventually kill you. Our bodies are not meant to have these kinds of products floating via our veins and into our lungs and heart and other vital organs. So take good care and know that these devices work so much better than that big machine that is noisy and causes you to sleep alone for your spouse can't handle the noise. Good luck and do check into this product my boyfriend is now sleeping through the night when before he was waking every few minutes. .

about 4 years, said...

I noticed that I made several t ypos in my comment about falling. For example, at the end, I meant to say that I often fall when there is absolutely nothing wrong with and nothing ON the sidewalk. I think I tend to stub the toe of the sneaker I am wearing . Some of our ideas about neurological disorders were extremely interesting to me, though none of them give me direct things to think about in my own case, except possibly muscle weakness. I wonder if most oldsters do not get the right kind of attention from their doctors so that causes may go unnoticed. For instance, how could I know if my problem is muscle weakness, which I am beginning to consider more seriously?

about 4 years, said...

My geriatrician PCP has spent several years trying to figure out why I have so many falls. IT has not been a balance problem, and all the doctors I've seen (she has referred me to many different kinds of doctors) say my gait is perfectly normal and strong and straight. But no one can offer a suggestion as to what it really might be. I have thoght of neurological problems, but I've been to see a neurologist, who thought it was not that, though how he could figure that out without an MRI or some look inside I do not understand. I have discussed my meds with my PCP, but she has not tried to change any of them, and I'm not sure she has seriously considered this, as we've done no "testing." I am just beginning to notice balance issues, but they do not cause me to fall. I have falllen by tripping over a broken sidewalk, but many many times the sidewalk has been perfectly square and all of a sudden I find myself on the ground. Any comments?

about 4 years, said...

Finding out that my being sleepy during the day - occasionally, but always on waking - could be the sleep apnea.

about 4 years, said...

great health ideas

about 4 years, said...

stress help and heart disease also

about 4 years, said...

list on one page of symptoms so i dont have to read all to get to tne im iinterested in

over 4 years, said...


over 4 years, said...

Loved articles! Thanks!!

over 4 years, said...

Weight loss which is unexplained and large over short period of time is worry some , physician check up is definitely recommended to diagnose the problem and hopefully a good insurance policy to hold down expenses if the be a need

over 4 years, said...

Great information to be armed with.

over 4 years, said...

Overall an excellent article, well put together and very helpful

over 4 years, said...

Just general information which is always good to have, for myself or to share if I think of it.

almost 5 years, said...


almost 5 years, said...

Very interesting articles,simply written.

almost 5 years, said...

Symptom #5, Chronic cough. You are SO SPOT ON RIGHT about this one!!My 93 yr. old dad developed this and I immediately knew something was wrong. It was discovered during an ultrasound that he had TWO blood clots in his upper right thigh--we took him to the local ER where it was discovered that he had a pulmonary embolism--two blood clots in his lungs! He is now on Xarelto, has a wonderful, caring hematologist and has responded so well to treatment. One must be vigilant of a chronic cough! It can also signal asthma, which can be life threatening too.

about 5 years, said...

I learned already ; but I refresh everything....I need to help my best friend and need to learn so I can help sad for me we are the same age .......

about 5 years, said...

In this day and age of foods that are overladen with estrogens, and that can be in the form of soy additives in thousands of different prepared foods that we ingest as we strive to survive, so to speak, our bodies become overladen with to much estrogen. We now know that testosterone and really the grandady of them all pregnenalone are the master hormone controllers. Ladies and Gents please take heed, these two control our hormonal system.If they become imbalanced, which they do , they allow estrogens to overrun our bodies and it these that cause a multitude of issues, like polysystic overy syndrome, excessive hair growth , lack of hair growth, breast cancers, in males and females, cancers in the prostate, as well most prostate issues. This just scratches the surface of hormones out of control.

about 5 years, said...

I had a heart attack at age 33 and had all the symptoms that you listed for women. I thought I had the world's worst case of indigestion. But no, it was a heart problem. Wish I would have known this earlier. The other symptoms too, were good, I will make a copy of this article so it can be reviewed from time to time.

about 5 years, said...

It was a great overall refresher of things I've heard or read before, but it never hurts to get a quick reminder. Your articles are concise and easy to read. Thanks.

about 5 years, said...

I knew a great deal of this but picked up some new ideas. Another cause of losing your balance is an inner ear infection. My husband had an episode of this that started with a couple of days of poor balance.

about 5 years, said...

New information

about 5 years, said...

I have smoked on and off for about 30 years. I frequently have a bothetsome cough. I have been caring for my Dad for 13 months, and have tried to "curb" my Smoking to 1half a cigarette about 3 times A day. Sometimes the cough produces phlem, but not always. I am here for my father's needs, he has RCC stage 4 (13 months ago.) As well as squamos cell carcinoma for 7 years,(surgery after surgery...) I am in Pa. where my father lives, and I live in NJ, but have not been home in 13 months to see any of my own doctor's, & will not be home until my father passes away.