Along with many other doctors around the UK, I have been struck in recent weeks by the reduction in what might simplistically be called potentially serious health problems and a number of observational studies do appear to suggest that people are shying away from reporting worrying symptoms to their GP because of the fear of contracting COVID-19 if admitted to hospital. We must all remember that serious illness does not have a calendar, nor does it ever take a holiday.
Hoping that potentially serious symptoms are nothing to be concerned about, or that they will simply go away if ignored are never the sensible options and the golden rule here is simple – if you are worried, get it checked out by your doctor even during this time of lockdown. There are many key symptoms that should never be ignored and which your doctor would always want to know about it but my personal ‘Top 10’ here include:
Don’t ignore any chest pain or discomfort that suddenly hits you while at rest or during walking or exercising. The sensation of squeezing, crushing or pressure on the chest could indicate many things – from “harmless” stress and indigestion to something as serious as an impending heart attack or angina. Angina is recurring chest pain that usually signals coronary artery disease.
Sudden or unexplained weight loss should always be investigated. Whereas weight gain is rarely a sign of sinister problems, unexpected weight loss can sometimes be the first sign of serious illness somewhere in the body.
If simple knocks or bumps cause severe bruising then a blood test may be needed to check all is well. Although the skin and blood vessels become more fragile with age – and many elderly people bruise very easily as a result – if there is significant bruising (especially if the gums bleed too) for no obvious reason then this should be investigated.
Simple acid reflux into the gullet can cause this but any difficulty in swallowing food – especially bread or meat – that develops over any length of time may not be due to a harmless or benign problem. If there is difficulty swallowing liquids then a doctor should be consulted as soon as possible.
Bleeding from the back passage should never be ignored as being due to ‘piles’. Although haemorrhoids remain the commonest cause of such bleeding, never assume this is the case without getting it confirmed by your doctor. ’(This the reason behind the old medical adage taught to generations of medical students – ‘If you don’t put your finger in it you’ll put your foot in it’.)
A change in bowel habit
Although we all have days when our bowels are not as regular as usual, any prolonged change from normal lasting more than a fortnight should be assessed. This could be unexplained diarrhoea, a feeling that the bowels have not emptied properly in some way, the sensation of wanting to go to the toilet again immediately, or becoming constipated unexpectedly.
Blood in the urine
Known as haematuria, this is sometimes due to water infections but can be a sign of bladder growths. It does not matter if there is no pain with the bleeding, always take a water sample to your doctor and get it checked.
Everyone gets headaches at some time and the usual cause is tiredness, stress or poor posture. Headaches that refuse to go with painkillers, or are chronic, or are associated with nausea, vomiting or blurred vision, or that wake you up from sleep should never be ignored.
Unusual vaginal bleeding
Any woman who has unexpected bleeding after the menopause, or has bleeding after intercourse should be examined. There are many possible benign causes for this problem but also a number of worrying ones and if in doubt always get checked out.
Yellow discolouration of the eyes and skin is never normal and must always be assessed. This can be due to a number of problems ranging from the relatively harmless to the serious, including viral infections of the liver, cirrhosis and tumours.
However, the bottom line remains the same – if you are worried about a particular health problem, talk to your doctor. Never, ever ignore danger symptoms. If you are not sure whether a symptom could be serious or not always ask, however anxious you may be about the coronavirus at this time. It may not only be the most important question you ever raise in your life, but might just save it.