Sometimes it’s really obvious you need to see a doctor. A dangerously high fever, constant vomiting or excruciating pain are all very clear signs something is wrong, and you need medical attention.
But some symptoms of serious illness are easier to ignore, or maybe you’re too embarrassed to bring them up to a physician.
Shawn Piers, MD, is a family medicine physician for OSF Medical Group – Primary Care in Washington, Illinois. He has identified symptoms people commonly try to ignore, but could indicate something serious. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should get them checked out. Don’t risk your long-term health and safety by ignoring them.
1. Change in bowel movements or habits
“People have their own stool habits,” Dr. Piers said. “Maybe you always have to go after your coffee in the morning or some other consistent pattern, so you know when your pattern changes.”
Changes that are most concerning are unusual and persistent constipation, ongoing diarrhea, the feeling that you can’t empty your bowels completely and even blood in the stool.
“People either don’t want to talk about it or face it,” Dr. Piers said. “They will usually put that off for a while. It won’t drive them to see a doctor. With blood in the stool, they often think it’s just hemorrhoids.
“What we would be concerned most about in people 45 and above is the possibility of colon cancer. The thing that finally brings someone in is abdominal pain. By the time that occurs, the illness could be much worse. It’s important to not ignore some of the initial symptoms.”
2. Unexpected weight loss
“If someone is not changing eating habits or exercising, but is losing weight, it’s concerning to us because our bodies don’t lose weight naturally,” Dr. Piers said.
The weight loss can be gradual, happening slowly over the course of weeks and months, but maybe you notice your clothes are fitting more loosely despite no diet or exercise change. The biggest concern Dr. Piers would look for in this case is cancer.
“We would be looking for cancers within the lung, abdomen or even blood cancers like leukemia,” he said.
Diabetes or thyroid disease are also possibilities.
3. Chronic fatigue or tiredness
If you find yourself always tired, it may be a symptom of depression, which is an illness that sort of feeds on itself.
It can happen slowly, making it difficult to notice, Dr. Piers said. A person loses interest in things, and maybe becomes more withdrawn. And when a person is interacting with others less often, it can be hard for loved ones to see the changes.
Plus, depression can cause insomnia, which can exacerbate the problem. Changes in diet and performance issues at work can be signs of depression, too.
“These things come on gradually and people often feel it’s a sign of weakness to get care or therapy,” Dr. Piers said. “They think ‘It’s for someone else, but it’s not for me.’”
Other medical conditions would also need to be ruled out, such as thyroid disease.
4. Shortness of breath
“By itself, shortness of breath doesn’t usually drive people to seek medical attention unless it’s significant,” Dr. Piers said. “It can be due to a lack of exercise. But, when we are unusually short of breath going up steps or during daily tasks, such as carrying out the garbage, this could be a serious issue needing attention.
“Mistakenly, people often feel they need another symptom paired with shortness of breath before visiting their doctor, such as chest pain or cough. However, shortness of breath by itself is a symptom that should be addressed. Because it comes on very slowly, allowing you to adjust to it, it is not recognized as a problem that would cause you to see your clinician.”
Shortness of breath could be caused by heart disease or asthma. If you’re a smoker, COPD is a possibility, but smokers often ignore shortness of breath because they think it’s just an effect of the smoking.
According to Dr. Piers, shortness of breath associated with cough, especially if it’s bloody, could be cancer.
If you are accustomed to not having headaches, and start having them regularly, it may be a sign of something wrong.
“People tend to not seek medical care for headaches until the headaches start to interrupt their daily life,” Dr. Piers said.
What you want to look out for is a recurring headache that is more prolonged. It might start as a low-grade headache that gets worse over the course of weeks or months.
“It could just be stress, but we would worry about something more serious,” Dr. Piers said. “Particularly if you start seeing other symptoms, like numbness or weakness.
6. Enlarged testicle or lump on testicle
Because of the private nature of this area of the body, men can be uncomfortable sharing information about testicular issues with a clinician. Guys seem to be more open about it now than in the past, however, Dr. Piers said.
“You should always come in to the office for that,” Dr. Piers said. “Especially if you’re younger, there’s a danger of testicular cancer.”
Testicular cancer is most common in men under 40 years old – predominantly late teens to 20s – which also makes it likely that symptoms will be ignored by young men who believe they are too young to have something serious.
“An older person with an enlarged testicle or a lump, I’m less concerned about cancer, but it may be something such as a cyst or hernia,” Dr. Piers said.
Serious illness does not go away by itself, and with a lot of medical issues, the earlier you get treatment, the better your chances are for a positive outcome. So, if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. Don’t have one? You can start here to find one available near you. It’s never been simpler.
Last Updated: April 14, 2022