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8 Symptoms We Don’t Worry About But Should

Are you ignoring these signs of possible disease for you or a loved one?

By Paula Spencer Scott

(This article appeared previously on

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, eight often-overlooked symptoms that warrant a medical checkup:

Overlooked Symptom No. 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 No. 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.

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 No. 3: 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 10 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 No. 4: 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 No. 5: 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 No. 6: Slipping, Falling, Losing Your Balance

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 No. 7: 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.

Overlooked Symptom No. 8: Chest, Neck and Arm Discomfort with 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 more than a dozen books, including Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers, a series of interactive journals and health/family guides with doctors at Harvard, UCLA and Duke. Her latest is When Your Aging Parent Needs Help with Dr. Leslie Kernisan. A longtime journalist and former Woman's Day columnist, she's also an Alzheimer's, caregiving, and brain-health educator.
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