If you experience any of these, don't hesitate to seek help
Think Halloween goblins and ghouls are terrifying? How about a sudden, sharp pain in your chest? Or numbness in your hands?
Horror movies aside, few things get your heart racing and your adrenaline flowing like a health scare. And according to Jennifer Earvolino, MD, an internist at Rush, there's a reason why some symptoms are so unsettling: They may be signs of dangerous, even life-threatening conditions.
"When you experience sudden, severe onset of certain symptoms, it's important to be seen and evaluated as soon as possible," says Earvolino. "Don't wait to see if the symptoms go away or if self-care measures can help. It's better to find out later that your problem isn't serious than to not get help if it is."
According to Earvolino, these 10 symptoms* may indicate a medical emergency. In all these cases, unless otherwise noted, you should speak with a health care professional immediately, go to the emergency room or call 911:
1. Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, can have many causes, ranging from weight gain to major issues such as heart attack, stroke, blood clots, asthma and lung infections. "Anyone can experience dyspnea occasionally," Earvolino says. "But if it is severe, sudden and significantly limits your activities, you should be evaluated immediately to rule out the more serious causes."
2. Chest or upper abdominal pain or pressure.
Musculoskeletal problems, lung infections or acid reflux may account for these symptoms; a proper history and physical can help determine the cause.
Because these are also classic heart attack symptoms, get help right away if the pain comes on suddenly, is not relieved by rest, and is accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, light-headedness, dizziness, shortness of breath or sweating.
3. Fainting, sudden dizziness, weakness.
Ongoing dizziness and fainting episodes can both have numerous causes, such as infections, allergies, or cardiac or neurologic conditions. Such symptoms warrant a trip to your doctor. Sudden weakness of any limb or facial muscle should be checked out ASAP because it is a possible symptom of stroke.
4. "The worst headache of my life."
Another scary symptom that could mean you’re having a stroke: a sudden, severe headache. If it's the worst pain you've ever felt, call 911 right away.
When it comes to stroke, time = brain; the sooner doctors can stop the bleeding, the less serious the damage is likely to be.
A severe headache accompanied by a stiff neck and high fever may indicate meningitis, viral or bacterial infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. While viral meningitis is rarely serious, early diagnosis and treatment of bacterial meningitis is essential to prevent permanent neurological damage. So call 911 as soon as possible.
5. Changes in vision.
Changes in vision can be the result of an injury, including a blow to the head, or they can be caused by allergies or infections, among other things.Whether you are experiencing loss of vision or blurred vision, you need to have a medical professional evaluate it.
"With vision changes, sudden onset is the characteristic that should prompt you to be seen as soon as possible," Earvolino explains.
6. Confusion or changes in mental status.
It may be hard to notice these symptoms in yourself, but you may see them in others. "Check to see if the person experiencing these symptoms is taking medications and if they may have taken too much or not taken something correctly," Earvolino says. "If the onset of these symptoms is sudden and unusual, don't hesitate to get help."
7. Any sudden or severe pain.
Sudden, severe, unusual or unexplained pain may have a wide range of causes, including herniated discs, muscle spasms, infections or inflammation.
In particular, sudden and sharp abdominal pain could be a sign of many conditions, including appendicitis, kidney infections, bladder infections, colitis or infectious diarrhea. If abdominal pain comes on suddenly or doesn't go away, see someone immediately.
8. Uncontrolled bleeding.
Bleeding is considered uncontrolled if it does not stop after five minutes of applying direct, steady pressure. Regardless of the cause — whether it's an injury or a medical condition such as leukemia or hemophilia — you need immediate medical assistance.
9. Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea.
While these symptoms may simply be the result of a severe case of gastroenteritis (an inflammation of the stomach and intestinal tract), they could also indicate appendicitis, meningitis or food poisoning.
Often gastroenteritis is viral and resolves on its own. However, if you have bloody diarrhea or fever, you may have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics.
"And if your symptoms are unrelenting and you can't keep any foods or fluids down, you run the risk of dehydration and may need intravenous fluids," Earvolino adds.
10. Coughing up or vomiting blood.
You may occasionally cough up a bit of blood due to a cold, along with a dry throat. But if you cough up blood persistently, it could be something more severe, including bronchitis, a blood clot in the lungs, cancer or tuberculosis.
A bloody cough accompanied by fever or shortness of breath might be pneumonia, in which case you need to see the doctor.
Vomiting blood is more serious — it's a symptom that always needs medical evaluation. It could signal a bleeding ulcer, severe liver damage or possibly even tumors in the stomach or esophagus.
"If your symptoms aren't severe and if you have them only once in awhile, take the time to make an appointment with your doctor," says Earvolino. "Don't try to diagnose yourself, especially on the Internet. If you are unsure how severe the symptom is, err on the side of caution and call your doctor promptly."
* This list is not meant to be all-inclusive.