What kind of things should send you right to the doctor?
July 5, 2017 10:34 AM   Subscribe

What are some medical symptoms / issues that many people don't realize are serious?

I would like to hear of more situations or symptoms that people experience and underestimate their severity. Examples like getting bitten by a human and it breaking the skin - it may seem minor but I believe that they can get infected badly. I'm especially interested in the GET TO THE ER STAT kinds of problems but anything related would be very welcome. Thanks!
posted by amicamentis to Health & Fitness (38 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Severe abdominal pain.
posted by delight at 10:40 AM on July 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

Vision abnormalities.
posted by phunniemee at 10:42 AM on July 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

Nausea -- can be a heart attack symptom.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:42 AM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Shingles can be bad (extremely painful, with the pain lasting for months) if you don't get on the antiviral within three days or so. So weird rashes are worth a look asap.
posted by clone boulevard at 10:45 AM on July 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

Loss of consciousness, whether related to a head trauma or otherwise (No, you can't just "walk it off")

Unexplained weakness on one side of the body

High fever with a stiff neck
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 10:48 AM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Cat bite, interaction with bats.
posted by charmedimsure at 10:58 AM on July 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

Sudden-onset serious anxiety - "a sense of impending doom", as my EMT textbook calls it, although actual patients apparently rarely use that phrasing in the field.

Sometimes what people think is just something mental (anxiety) actually turns out to have a serious physiological cause. Many of the things that trigger this feeling aren't things you want to play around with - heart attack, anaphylaxis, toxin exposure (jellyfish stings, food poisoning), etc. (see here for a partial run-down). For one person's experience with this, see here, for instance (yes, it is the Daily Mail).
posted by ClaireBear at 11:01 AM on July 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

Spreading redness and puffiness around what appears to be a very minor nick in the skin, or even a pimple.

If it hurts and it's more than an inch wide, note the time and draw a ring around the edge of the red area with a Sharpie; if the redness keeps spreading outward beyond the Sharpie line, get medical attention quickly. If it starts making long red streaks, get medical attention very quickly. Cellulitis can achieve a degree of nasty that's way out of proportion to the size of the initial injury.
posted by flabdablet at 11:07 AM on July 5, 2017 [22 favorites]

A cramp like sensation in your leg which doesn't fade away. Later stage symptoms include heat/redness or swelling. You might have Deep Vein Thrombosis & part of the clot can shoot to your lungs causing a pulmonary embolism if not treated correctly. The symptoms though often get mistaken for leg cramp or a injury.

Nthing sudden vision changes. My legally blind mother started seeing things that weren't there, she actually thought her eyesight was suddenly getting better. Turned out she'd had a stroke and her brain panicked & was thinking she was going even blinder as it was in the vision part of her brain so sent her hallucinations trying to figure out what she was seeing.
posted by wwax at 11:10 AM on July 5, 2017 [5 favorites]

Deer tick (aka black-legged tick) bite with rash, which can lead to Lyme disease.

"Thunderclap" headache (aka "worst headache ever"), which could be a subarachnoid hemorrhage.

A pustule or boil inside your nose, which in rare cases can infect the brain through the facial vein.
posted by nicwolff at 11:12 AM on July 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

slurred speech
posted by Dressed to Kill at 11:19 AM on July 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

Tea colored urine can be a sign of Rhabdomyolysis. Tense/swollen skin can be a sign of Compartment syndrome, which can occur from over-exercising.

Severe pain in your scrotum can be a sign of testicular torsion.

A curtain over your field of vision or a bunch of floaters can be a sign of retinal detachment.
posted by Comrade_robot at 11:25 AM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

To expand on phunniemee's answer re: vision abnormalities, here is my heartfelt PSA on signs of retinal detachment.

If you experience any of these symptoms, you need a doctor to check your vision IMMEDIATELY, as in, go to the ER right away and tell them these are your symptoms:

-flashing lights on the periphery of your vision
-a sudden increase in "floaters"
-a darkening of your field of vision, as if a grey or black curtain were going across it

They can be symptoms of retinal detachment, which can lead to blindness within 24 hours unless you get the surgery to save your vision--a very narrow time period, so this is not a "wait and see how I feel tomorrow/after the weekend" type of situation.

For half my life, I've been at high risk for retinal detachment, so my eye doctor has gone over the symptoms with me many times and drilled it into me that if I ever experienced them, it was ER visit time. So last year when I suddenly experienced a shower of floaters and lots of flashes, I went to the ER right away (it was Friday night, Murphy's Law), told them my symptoms and was rushed through immediately. They do not screw around when there's possibility of retinal detachment because of how quickly it can lead to blindness. I was shocked at how quickly I was seen.

It turned out to be posterior vitreous detachment (PVD), which can lead to retinal detachment, so I had to be monitored for a few months. But it settled down without turning into a detachment, so I was lucky. But wow, I realized how serious it was when they hustled me through to the ER like I had a gunshot wound. It kind of scared me to be honest. But the intake nurse and every single person who examined me kept reiterating that I'd done exactly the right thing in coming to the ER immediately.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:28 AM on July 5, 2017 [21 favorites]

Severe back and shoulder pain along with shortness of breath and fever. Turned out to be pneumonia that morphed into empyema - pus that collected from my lung attached onto my rear chest wall.

Two visits to urgent care and family doctor only resulted in a handful of prescriptions for muscle relaxants. The third visit, the family doctor noted I was looking a little blue around the lips so I got sent to for a chest x ray. The receptionist got a call from the radiologist reading the x ray and asked how fast my husband could get to the office to take me to the ER because if it wasn't in the next 15 minutes she had to call an ambulance.

Landed me in ICU for over a week for lung surgery then another 5 days in the step down unit. It took me 3 months off work to recover.
posted by IndigoOnTheGo at 11:33 AM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Changes in poop and pee.

Enlarged prostates in men in particular impact your pee in a big way, and a classic story doctors hear is they've noticed the changes for weeks or months before coming in.

If the frequency/volume/color/consistency of your poop or pee has changed drastically, get over the stigma and SEE A DOCTOR.
posted by notorious medium at 11:44 AM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Unintentional weight loss (of 15-20 lbs), especially if accompanied with sweats that soak the sheets, chills, fevers.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 11:54 AM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Pissing what looks like Lipton. Means kidney failure.
posted by bile and syntax at 12:12 PM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

chest pains - might seem obvious but my doctor friend informs me that ignoring chest pains is very common when from her POV its a get to the ER stat situation. She works the advice phone line as well as writing to a GP and gets a lot of calls from people who are having chest pain but don't want to bother the doctor and certainly don't want to go to the hospital (and this is in a country where its free!)
posted by missmagenta at 12:41 PM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sudden hearing loss, usually on one side. If you get to the ER they'll give you emergency steroids which can sometimes bring it back. If you wait more than a couple days, there is very little chance of recovery.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:43 PM on July 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Almost any innocuous symptom can be a sign of something urgent, given the right conditions.

Lightheadedness on its own, without chest pain or any other symptoms, probably isn't a symptom of a heart attack unless you're elderly. Then, lightheadedness might be the *only* symptom.

A stomach ache that lasts more than 12 hours is no fun, but it's not serious, right? Well, that was my burst appendix. I never had pain localized to my lower right abdomen, and I had had appendicitis for four days by the time I experienced any discomfort at all, let alone knowing I was sick.

People who've had head injuries often don't know they need to get a doctor to look at them - either because they never had that information, or because they aren't thinking too well. Bystanders often take the casualty at their word, not realizing they might have to insist on behalf of someone who possibly isn't thinking straight.

Cat bites.
posted by tel3path at 12:49 PM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Numbness/tingling in a hand or foot, or both, but one sided: this can be a symptom of a stroke. May feel like your foot or hand is asleep. Can be, but does not need to be, accompanied by nausea and/or headache.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:30 PM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would say any unexplained pain that doesn't resolve in a reasonable amount of time warrants a trip to the doctor.
posted by brevator at 1:58 PM on July 5, 2017

Fever or unusually low body temp (that isn't normal for you - some of us run colder than 98.6). A temp above 101 or below 98.6 accompanied by a fast heart rate (90+ beats per minute) and/or rapid breathing (20+ breaths per minute) is criteria for sepsis. The fast heart rate and/or rapid breathing isn't always obvious to the septic person.

I've had sepsis. You don't want it, and it is easy for medical practitioners to miss. Don't be one of those people who tells me they had a temp of 103 and "drank lots of Gatorade and rode it out because why bother the doctor" omg are you _kidding_ me.
posted by camyram at 2:12 PM on July 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

If your period suddenly gets heavy, as in flooding sanitary products in an hour or so.

Doing a white poo.
posted by threetwentytwo at 2:35 PM on July 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Dehydration in older people. You lose a good percentage of the water in your body later in life and you also get fewer thirst cues.

Unless older people drink enough fluids explicitly, on a hot day the dehydration can creep up on them faster than you can imagine, and become threatening before you've figured out what's wrong. All for the want of a bottle of water!

The flip side of this is that you can think you're absolutely at death's door when you actually have a trivially manageable, even reversible issue.

The tel3mum has been getting frailer and more elderly of late, she started to not be able to walk more than a quarter mile at a time without stopping. However, it was hot and she was getting so dehydrated that even she cared. I lectured her to quit her lifelong habit of restricting liquids, she listened, and within a FEW DAYS was able to walk three-quarters of a mile without stopping.

(And don't get me started about keeping elderly people on blood pressure meds forever, putting them at risk of low blood pressure and consequent falls. This is a great way to wreck an old person's quality of life, if it doesn't kill them. Why yes, the doctor did slash the tel3mum's dosage by three-quarters this morning, and yes she is noticeably fresher already this evening.)
posted by tel3path at 2:35 PM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've found that a surprising number of laypeople don't know that swollen legs can be a sign of heart failure. Likewise, if only one leg is swollen (for no other obvious reason like a big bug bite), you may have a DVT.
posted by telegraph at 4:42 PM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Delirium in the elderly can be caused by bladder infections and it's SUPER DUPER common.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:20 PM on July 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sudden, unexplained change in vision.
posted by rhiannonstone at 5:59 PM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Blood in your urine. Believe me, it's easy to slough it off especially because there are absolutely no accompanying symptoms, but the earlier kidney cancer is detected the better the prognosis. And it often lurks for a long time before the symptom That Should Not Be Ignored is evident.
posted by DrGail at 6:27 PM on July 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Shortness of breath within a few weeks of starting birth control pills (or, I think, some other hormone-based treatments, but IANAD). Hint: Don't go to your allergist. Go to your GP.

(Because you may already have blood clots in your lungs)


Or shortness of breath not long after taking a long car trip (even 6 or so hours) or flight, binge-watching Orphan Black, playing through a game series, etc. without getting up and moving around.

(See above, though that time I wasn't the victim)
posted by wintersweet at 7:01 PM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had hearing loss on one side suddenly a few years ago. No pain. Turned out to be a viral infection but I waited too long for treatment. I'm lucky – only have bad tinnitus on that side and mild hearing loss, it could've been worse.

Sudden hearing loss is an emergency, I found out.
posted by zadcat at 9:05 PM on July 5, 2017

Digested blood makes your poop look black (sort of like coffee grounds) and tarry, so if your poop starts looking like that, you might be bleeding somewhere in your GI tract and it's worth checking with a doctor.
posted by colfax at 10:08 PM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

To add on to colfax's answer: Vomit with a coffee-grounds-like appearance is a flag for GI bleeding, too.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:12 PM on July 5, 2017

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes (sometimes overlooked by parents/medical staff): Increased thirst, increased urination, tiredness, sudden weight loss, blurred vision (I know several people who were diagnosed after they'd been fitted with new glasses by opticians), thrush, slow healing wounds.

You can develop Type 1 diabetes as an adult.
posted by Helga-woo at 10:19 PM on July 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Persistently cloudy urine. Even if you don't seem to have bladder infection symptoms, it is likely a low-grade UTI that could very likely escalate into something a lot more serious, like a kidney infection, if you don't get it treated.
posted by tully_monster at 3:44 AM on July 6, 2017

If you ever, ever have a headache that you think, This is the worst headache of my life -- get to the ER, as it could be an aneurysm. I lost a friend to this very young and have been preaching it ever since. People who survive to tell all say they had the worst headache they'd ever had.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:56 AM on July 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

The more of these symptoms that are present : Headache + stiff neck (the inability to flex the neck forward passively) + inability to tolerate light + fever = higher probability of meningitis.

If you have 3 of these or all 4, ER - stat. If you have 2 of these, YMMV but be alert....

* note; if you have a hangover, this is a harder thing to notice.
posted by lalochezia at 1:27 PM on July 6, 2017

A rash or skin texture change that looks like the peel of an orange (not the color, just the texture) on the breast can be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, which is very aggressive and needs treatment started ASAP. It's not like "go to the emergency room at 11 pm," but you should call the next morning for an appointment and be seen within a couple days. Don't wait a couple weeks to see if it gets better on its own.

Numbness around the genitals/perineum/anus ("saddle numbness") is a sign of serious compression of the lower spinal cord, and should send you to the emergency room. It can be a sign of impending permanent nerve damage, and the causes range from surgically correctable (e.g. herniated disk) to life threatening (cancer).
posted by vytae at 9:22 PM on July 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

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