Mayo Clinic Health Library

7 signs and symptoms not to ignore

Updated: 07-14-2011

Chest pain, sudden loss of vision or speech, and severe abdominal pain require immediate medical attention — but what about more subtle red flags? It can be tough to know what to do. Here's a list of seven signs and symptoms that merit attention.

No. 1: Unexplained weight loss

Losing weight without trying might sound like a dream come true, but in reality it can signal a health problem. If you've lost up to 10 percent of your weight during the past six months — for instance, 15 pounds (7 kilograms) if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kilograms) — consult your doctor.

An unexplained drop in weight could be caused by various conditions — including overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), diabetes, depression, liver disease, cancer or disorders that interfere with how your body absorbs nutrients (malabsorption disorders).

No. 2: Persistent or high fever

A fever isn't necessarily a cause for alarm. Fever seems to play a key role in fighting infection. If you've had a fever for more than three days, however, get checked by your doctor. Persistent fever can signal a hidden infection, which could be anything from a urinary tract infection to tuberculosis. In some cases, cancerous (malignant) conditions — such as lymphomas — cause prolonged or persistent fevers, as can some medications.

If you have a high fever — 103 F (39.4 C) or higher — consult your doctor as soon as possible.

No. 3: Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath that feels more severe than what's caused by a stuffy nose or vigorous physical activity could signal an underlying health problem. If you're unable to get your breath, or you're gasping for air or wheezing, seek emergency medical care. Feeling breathless when lying down also is a symptom that needs to be evaluated promptly.

Causes for breathlessness may include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, a blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism), as well as other heart and lung problems. Difficulty breathing can also occur with panic attacks — episodes of intense anxiety that can cause rapid heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath and other physical symptoms.

No. 4: Unexplained changes in bowel habits

What's considered normal for bowel movements varies widely. Consult your doctor if you notice unusual or unexplained changes in what's normal for you, such as:

  • Bloody, black or tarry-colored stools
  • Persistent diarrhea or constipation
  • Unexplained urges to have a bowel movement

Changes in bowel habits could signal a bacterial infection — such as campylobacter or salmonella — or a viral or parasitic infection. Other possible causes include irritable bowel syndrome and colon cancer.

No. 5: Confusion or personality changes

Seek medical attention if you have:

  • Sudden confused thinking
  • Confusion about time or place (disorientation)
  • Sudden problems with concentration or memory
  • Sudden personality or behavior changes, such as becoming aggressive

Changes in behavior or thinking could be caused by many problems, including infection, anemia, low blood sugar, dehydration or mental health conditions. Sometimes medications contribute to confusion or personality changes.

No. 6: Feeling full after eating very little

If you consistently feel full sooner than normal or after eating less than usual, get checked by your doctor. This feeling, known as early satiety, also may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, bloating, fever, and weight loss or gain. If so, be sure to tell your doctor about these signs and symptoms as well.

Possible causes of early satiety include gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as GERD, and irritable bowel syndrome. In some cases, a more serious problem — such as pancreatic cancer — could be a factor.

No. 7: Flashes of light

Bright spots or flashes of light and other visual disturbances sometimes indicate a migraine. In other cases, sudden flashing lights could signal retinal detachment. Immediate medical care can help prevent permanent vision loss.