At times, seemingly “normal” symptoms like a stiff neck or a headache may be harbingers of more serious conditions that require medical attention. Here are a few symptoms that may signal something more serious.
The Symptom: A dark purple-blue bruise
The Possible Cause: While most bruises are the short-term effects of an injury, at times, they may signal a more serious condition, such as a clotting issue, low platelet count, or liver disease. If you notice many unexplainable bruises or bruises that take a long time to heal, contact your doctor.
The Symptom: A headache
The Possible Cause: Yes, headaches are quite common but there are certain types that are worrisome. If you don’t typically get headaches but then experience sudden, stabbing, severe head pain, the cause could be something serious. For seniors, if you develop throbbing pain localized to your temples accompanied by blurry vision, it could be vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels that can lead to blindness. Visit the emergency department if you suspect either condition.
The Symptom: A fever of 103 degrees or higher
The Possible Cause: For children and young adults, a fever of 103 degrees is usually a symptom of a viral illness, like the flu. If your child is lethargic and not acting like himself, the cause may be something more serious, such as pneumonia or a urinary infection. The same is true for adults experiencing a fever of 103 degrees or higher. Seek medical attention to rule out a serious condition.
The Symptom: Abdominal pain
The Possible Cause: Abdominal pain is common and can be caused by a variety of conditions. However, if the pain is severe and sudden and it radiates toward your back, it could be an abdominal aortic aneurysm, especially if you’re a smoker. An abdominal aortic aneurysm can be life-threatening if it bursts, so if you suspect that you have one, go to the emergency department immediately. Any sudden and severe abdominal pain should be seen by a doctor immediately.
The Symptoms: Numbness, tingling, and weakness in an extremity
The Possible Cause: If you experience numbness, tingling, and weakness on both sides of your body, the cause could be anxiety. However, if you only feel it on one side, it could be a stroke. Other symptoms of a stroke include slurred speech and facial droop. Treatment options for a stroke diminish significantly 4.5 hours after the onset of symptoms, so it’s vitally important to get to an ER immediately for your best chance of survival and recovery.
The Symptom: Tenderness (pain when pressing on the area) in the right lower abdomen.
The Possible Cause: This is the classic symptom of an inflamed appendix. While the pain may start in the middle, it generally settles in the right lower abdomen. Pain can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and lack of appetite, and possibly a fever. While somewhat common, if left untreated, an inflamed appendix can burst and spread infection throughout the abdominal cavity and into the bloodstream. Head to the nearest ER if you suspect an appendicitis.
The Symptom: Blood in your vomit or stool
The Possible Cause: While some red-colored foods can alter the color of substances in our digestive tract, vomiting or defecating blood can be the sign of a serious illness. Vomiting blood can be a symptom of an ulcer, esophageal tear, or liver disease. Bloody stool—which looks like black, sticky tar—is the sign of an internal bleed. If accompanied by dizziness and heart palpitations in particular, seek medical attention immediately.
The Symptom: A stiff neck
The Possible Cause: A restless night of sleep can leave you with a stiff neck in the morning. However, if you develop an unexplained stiff neck along with a headache, fever, and confusion, it might be meningitis. Meningitis is an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes and is typically caused by an infection. Symptoms develop quickly, and if not treated, the illness can lead to brain swelling and cause permanent disability, coma, and even death. In fact, between 10 and 15 percent of those who develop the disease will die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those who do survive, 10 percent will have lingering symptoms, such as deafness, seizures, or stroke. Go to the ER immediately if you exhibit these symptoms.
The shared characteristics of these conditions is that they often exhibit ordinary symptoms. It’s important to understand when a seemingly “normal” symptom is actually a serious red flag. While you may want to ignore these symptoms and hope they pass, in some cases, delaying treatment can be catastrophic.
I recently saw a 40-year-old patient in the ER who had been experiencing headaches and fever for several days and finally sought medical attention. We ran a few tests and determined that she had meningitis. If she had delayed getting treatment just a few more hours, she probably would have died.
Doctors are here to help keep you well—and treat you when you aren’t. Don’t ignore the signals that your body sends you. It’s one “check engine” light that’s not going to resolve on its own.
Mark Waciega, MD, board-certified in family medicine and anesthesiology, is an emergency medicine physician at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold. He may be reached by calling 866-CENTRA7.