Sometimes you know you don't have time to waste. When you fall down the stairs and think you've broken a bone, for example, you seek medical attention immediately.
But every year people experience sudden, serious medical symptoms and don’t see a doctor because they think they have plenty of time — for the symptoms to go away or to see if self-care measures can help. And that, says Jennifer Earvolino, MD, an internist at Rush University Medical Center, is a huge mistake.
"Sudden, severe onset of certain symptoms must be taken seriously, and in these cases it's important to be seen and evaluated as soon as possible," says Earvolino.
The list below covers symptoms that may indicate a medical emergency and can help you assess potentially serious medical situations. This list is not meant to be all-inclusive. In all these cases, unless otherwise noted, you should speak with a health care professional immediately, go to the emergency room or call 911.
Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath
Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, can have many causes, from weight gain to more serious issues, such as heart attack, stroke, asthma and lung infections. Anyone can experience dyspnea occasionally, but if it is severe, limits your activities or does not go away, you should be evaluated to exclude the more serious causes.
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.
Fainting, sudden dizziness, weakness
Ongoing dizziness and fainting episodes can both have numerous causes, such as infections, allergies or neurologic conditions. Such symptoms warrant a trip to your doctor. Sudden weakness of any limb or facial muscle should be checked out immediately because it is a possible symptom of stroke.
Changes in vision
Changes in vision can be the result of an injury, including a blow to the head, or 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.
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 appropriately," Earvolino says. "If the onset of these symptoms is sudden and unusual, don't hesitate to get help."
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.
A severe headache accompanied by a stiff neck and high fever may indicate meningitis. Sudden onset of "the worst headache of your life" could be the result of bleeding in the brain. Time is critical in both these instances, so call 911 right away.
Bleeding is considered uncontrolled if it does not stop after five minutes of applying direct, steady pressure. Regardless of the cause, you need immediate medical assistance.
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 indicate appendicitis, meningitis or food poisoning.
Often gastroenteritis is viral and takes care of itself. However, if you have bloody diarrhea or fever, you may have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics. If your symptoms are unrelenting and you can't keep anything down, you run the risk of dehydration and may need intravenous fluids.
Coughing up or vomiting blood
You may 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.
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.
"If symptoms are less than severe, or are episodic or chronic, 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."
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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.
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