It’s easy to brush off seemingly innocuous health symptoms in these challenging times. Research shows that fewer people have been going to see their doctors amid the coronavirus pandemic (via Johns Hopkins Medicine). But waiting too long to get a check-up could be more dangerous for your health than contracting the virus, warned Dr. Brian Hasselfeld, a physician and assistant medical director at Johns Hopkins, as it may result in a delay to receive a potential diagnosis and early treatment for a life-threatening condition.
According to a 2014 study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, women are more likely than men to dismiss heart health concerns, often waiting for their symptoms to worsen before taking action. While it’s natural to feel under the weather every now and again — a headache is often just a headache — it’s important to pay attention to your body’s signals that something isn’t quite right. Here are some health symptoms women, in particular, should never ignore.
While some discomfort around your abdomen isn’t out of the ordinary during your time of the month, unusually painful and persistent pelvic pain could point to a more serious issue like endometriosis (via Patient). This is a condition in which tissue from the uterus grows outside of the organ, causing scarring, bleeding, cysts, and hormonal fluctuations. It’s typically found in women who are in their 30s and 40s (via Medical News Today). A possible symptom of endometriosis is infertility or an inability to conceive, with a more severe risk being cancer, as advised by Medical News Today.
Other causes of chronic pelvic pain can range from gynecological to bowel or bladder problems, which might include uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), per Patient. More rarely, pelvic pain signals ovarian, cervical, or uterine cancer, according to the CDC. A research study conducted at the University of Utah School of Medicine found that a large proportion of women don’t report pelvic pain, often minimizing their experiences. Women "should communicate what they’re feeling and where they’re feeling it because it may indicate things the doctor needs to explore more fully," study author C. Matthew Peterson, reproductive endocrinologist and chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah, told the University of Utah Health website.
Painful or heavy periods
Primary dysmenorrhea is the medical term given to the cramping that typically accompanies menstruation, as noted by Healthline. It can be chalked up to a hormone called prostaglandin, which causes the uterus to contract. More than 50% of women experience some sort of pain for one to two days during their period, but when this becomes so severe or frequent that it interferes with day-to-day functioning, it might be the result of secondary dysmenorrhea (via Healthline). This kind of pain tends to worsen over time and lasts longer than normal cramps. It can be due to gynecological problems like ovarian cysts or fibroids or conditions like Crohn’s disease and urinary disorders, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Likewise, the heaviness of menstrual flow will vary from woman to woman, and sometimes even cycle to cycle. Menstrual bleeding that’s abnormally heavy or lasts more than seven days, known as menorrhagia, is commonly caused by hormone-related conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), insulin resistance, or a thyroid problem (via CDC). But when can a period be considered too heavy?
Some signs of menorrhagia include a period that lasts longer than a week, contains large blood clots, or requires you to change your tampon or pad every hour for several consecutive hours, as advised by the CDC. Menorrhagia can be linked to uterine or cervical cancer, which is why women experiencing this type of bleeding shouldn’t postpone a visit to their doctor for a proper evaluation.
Abnormal vaginal bleeding
Irregular vaginal bleeding or spotting between periods isn’t necessarily a harbinger of a serious condition or illness, though, understandably, it can be disconcerting. There can be a wide range of minor causes including a change in lifestyle, medication, or diet (via American Society for Reproductive Medicine). While short-lived or slight spotting is usually nothing to worry about, a visit to the doctor can help rule out some of its more severe causes, such as thyroid disorders, sexually transmitted infections, polycystic ovarian syndrome, or a blood clotting disorder like von Willebrand disease (via WebMD).
Additionally, more than 90% of women with endometrial cancer experience abnormal vaginal bleeding at some point, according to the American Cancer Society. And an early diagnosis could make all the difference. Endometrial cancer is more common in women who’ve already undergone menopause. Nevertheless, women of all ages and backgrounds should report any abnormal vaginal bleeding to their doctor.
Fluids leaking from one or both nipples can suggest a host of medical issues depending on the color and texture, ranging from infection to hormones to fibrocystic breast changes (via Self). It isn’t necessarily a sign of something ominous, however. Milky discharge from both nipples is fairly normal during pregnancy or breastfeeding, triggered by an increase in the hormone prolactin, which produces milk. But an overproduction of prolactin can also occur in women who develop a benign growth in the pituitary gland, as explained by the publication.
"Nipple discharge is … very rarely due to breast cancer," Therese Bartholomew Bevers, a professor of clinical cancer prevention and fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians, confirmed to Self. And interestingly, it’s also possible for women to experience discharge for no clear reason at all. However, if you notice discharge of any sort, get it checked out to put your mind at ease. Seeking medical help early can ensure that any underlying problem is detected and treated before becoming something more pressing.
Finding a lump on the breast may be anxiety-inducing for some, while others might not bat an eyelid. Most lumps are non-cancerous and can simply be attributed to hormonal shifts, while some women’s breasts are naturally lumpy (via Self). More often than not, physical changes to one or both breasts are fairly common. "The vast, vast, vast majority of these are totally normal skin issues," Dr. Richard Reitherman, diagnostic radiology specialist and medical director of breast imaging at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center, told the publication.
There are certain features, however, that might make the formation of a lump especially concerning, such as enlargement of the nipples or bloody discharge, a change in the color or texture of the skin, or changes in the size of the lump (via Prevention). A woman’s risk for breast cancer tends to increase after the age of 50 and if she has a family history of cancer. Still, women of any age or background can potentially develop breast cancer — thus lumps of all characteristics should prompt a visit to the doctor.
Shortness of breath
Women are more likely to experience breathlessness compared to men, according to a study published in Experimental Physiology (via BBC News). If you’ve been struggling to catch your breath, you may have dyspnea. This can be temporary, lasting only a minute or two after strenuous activity, or it could be chronic, lingering for several weeks (via Healthline). Whether it’s mild breathlessness or feeling as though you’re suffocating, dyspnea can be frightening.
Dyspnea can be a manifestation of various health issues like asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, or heart disease, as well as a psychological ailment like anxiety, Healthline explained. It also happens to be a common side effect of advanced lung cancer, whereby a tumor may be pressing against the lungs or blocking the air passageway (via Yale Medicine).
If you feel as though you can’t get enough air, flag this with your doctor to prevent any long-term complications and exclude the possibility of cancer. Whatever the underlying reason, sudden or stubborn breathlessness should be treated as an emergency.
The body’s largest organ, the skin, is often said to be a window into our overall well-being. Although skin changes — varying from discoloration to new growth — are a natural part of the aging process, they occasionally give us a clue that something with our health isn’t quite right (via Everyday Health). A rash may stem from an internal problem, infection, or allergy, or a reaction to a particular medicine, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. People with Addison’s disease, which affects the adrenal glands, often notice a darkening of the skin on joints and in the skin folds (via National Organization of Rare Disorders).
Skin changes are also commonly associated with skin cancer. There are different types of skin changes to keep an eye on including spots, bumps, ulcers, or moles, advises the American Cancer Society. Benign changes usually stay the same and fade away over time, whereas a mark that appears to be morphing in size, shape, or color may be indicative of melanoma or another type of skin cancer. Although both men and women get skin cancer, women younger than 40 are twice as likely as men to get melanoma, per HealthGrades.
Chest pain gets the most attention when you think about the symptoms of a heart attack. "As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain (angina) or discomfort," the American Heart Association confirmed. "But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain."
If you’re experiencing any type of pain, whether it is sharp, dull, or constant, try not to panic — but don’t wait too long to get it checked out. Not all heart attacks come on suddenly and dramatically like in the movies. Many start slowly and build up gradually with only mild pain in the early stages (via Harvard Health Publishing).
Only 20% of Americans evaluated for chest pains are diagnosed with a heart attack or "unstable angina" each year, noted Harvard Health Publishing. Other potentially life-threatening health issues that typically induce chest pain include pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lungs) or aortic dissection (a tear in the inner layer of the aorta). In rare cases, this is also a symptom of lung cancer, which yields chest, shoulder, or back pain alongside a nagging cough (via American Cancer Society).
Blood in your urine
You probably don’t give your urine much thought. But the sight of blood is likely to pique your attention. As Medical News Today confirmed, blood in the urine isn’t always from the urinary tract. In women, "blood from the vagina, cervix, or uterus may appear in the urine, giving the false appearance of hematuria [blood in the urine]," the site continued.
However, hematuria can be brought on by various issues, such as a urinary tract infection or kidney stones (via Mayo Clinic). In many cases, the cause is harmless. Something as innocent as food, medication, or exercise can yield red-colored urine, which usually goes away in just a few days. That said, it’s important to get it checked out to find out what’s at the root of this, advised the Mayo Clinic. It may precede the onset of other complications if left untreated.
On the less common but more severe end of the spectrum, hematuria is one of the first signs of bladder cancer (via American Cancer Society). And if found early it can be adequately treated. There may be enough blood that it turns the urine orange, pink, or a darker red, but it can also be very light or appear in small traces. Other noticeable changes in urination may include a burning sensation or having to pee more often than usual.
One of the most common causes of facial drooping is Bell’s palsy, or temporary paralysis of the facial muscles that results in weakness on one side of the face, sometimes producing a lopsided smile (via Mayo Clinic). There’s little certainty around what specifically triggers Bell’s palsy, and although it is thought to be as common in men as it is in women, it does often occur in pregnant women as well as in people who have viral infections, like the flu or a cold (via Johns Hopkins Medicine). It’s usually temporary and resolves itself over a few weeks or months but it can throw you through a loop, particularly if you don’t know what you’re dealing with.
Facial drooping shouldn’t be taken lightly, however, since it’s also one of the main features and warning signs of a stroke, according to the American Stroke Association, the others being weakness and numbness in one arm and slurred speech. While facial drooping is a rare symptom of cancer, it can happen. Certain tumors have been known to lead to facial paralysis, which is why this symptom shouldn’t be overlooked (via the Emory University School of Medicine).
Difficulty swallowing, which goes by the medical name dysphagia, usually manifests as the sensation that something is stuck in your throat. This condition is more prevalent in women and can occur anywhere in the throat, mouth, or esophagus (the muscular tube that transports food and water to your stomach). You may experience regurgitation of foods and liquids or feel as though you have to chew longer and harder to be able to swallow (via WebMD).
Women with chronic dysphagia should consult their doctor as soon as possible to rule out the rare diagnosis of esophageal cancer (via Cleveland Clinic). This occurs when a tumor or a swollen thyroid gland narrows the esophagus and it’s usually accompanied by a number of other symptoms like unintentional weight loss, chest pain, coughing, and heartburn.
As explained by the Cleveland Clinic, various other illnesses can make it hard to swallow including tonsillitis, indigestion, and acid reflux as well as more serious conditions affecting your brain and nervous system like multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and Parkinson’s disease.
Swelling in your legs or feet
Occasional swelling in one or both legs is fairly normal. Edema (the medical term for swelling) is brought on by excess fluid that builds up in the blood vessels. Causes that usually fall into the realm of harmlessness include inactivity, extended periods of sitting or standing, eating too many salty foods, or wearing tight clothing for long periods of time (via Cleveland Clinic). In these cases, movement can usually help restore circulation and decrease swelling. But when your symptoms persist or worsen, it’s time to pay closer attention.
Edema could be related to a blood clot called deep-vein thrombosis (DVT), according to Drugs.com. DVT may partially or completely block blood flow in the legs and eventually make its way to the lungs, which could be fatal. Pregnancy elevates women’s chances of developing DVT, as does hormone replacement therapy.
Other serious health problems that may give rise to edema include vein damage, congestive heart failure, and kidney or liver disease, all of which are preventable and treatable if caught early, explains Cleveland Clinic. Bottom line: Listen to your intuition if something feels off.
Unexplained weight loss
A wide variety of reasons may underlie weight loss in women. Those who don’t necessarily feel unwell may be tempted to turn a blind eye, but the cause of unintentional weight loss isn’t always an innocent one. A sudden or extreme drop in weight can sometimes be explained by hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid), as noted by Harvard Health Publishing. Women with this condition may feel lethargic, weak, moody, or nervous, and sometimes experience hand tremors and a fast or irregular heartbeat. More critically, hyperthyroidism can spark other health problems if it isn’t treated in a timely way.
Other potential causes for unintended weight loss include gastrointestinal and digestive disorders like inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, and peptic ulcers, with ovarian cancer being the least likely but most deleterious culprit (via Cleveland Clinic). All these conditions are treatable but have the potential to evolve into something more serious if they go ignored for too long. It’s not always easy to determine what constitutes worrisome weight loss but a good rule of thumb is that you should consult your doctor if you lose more than 10 pounds without trying over the course of six to 12 months, advises Cleveland Clinic.
Passively suicidal thoughts
Like most mental health issues, suicidal ideation exists on a spectrum. Passively suicidal thoughts, in particular, are often downplayed or considered shameful and wrong (via Refinery29). But a 2014 study in Current Psychiatry shows that recurring thoughts around death and suicide, whether active or passive, shouldn’t go ignored, and that a lack of therapeutic intervention could be detrimental in the long term. "If a person has spent time thinking about their own death and then a distressing event happens, they may begin to feel they have no choice but to end their own life," Dr. James Overholser, a suicide researcher and professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University, told Refinery29.
The good news is that with therapeutic support, people can effectively manage chronic thoughts of suicide, Dr. Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist and the executive director of the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, added. And for many people, these thoughts can go away entirely. If you’re going through a difficult time or can’t seem to kick challenging thoughts and emotions, don’t hesitate to reach out to a doctor or therapist for a chat. You don’t have to go at it alone.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).