If you experienced excruciating pain, difficulty breathing or found a lump somewhere on your body, chances are you wouldn’t hesitate to get help. However, sometimes the warning signs of serious illness can be more subtle — and sometimes they aren’t the same symptoms that men experience.
It can be hard to tell if symptoms are caused by something minor or something serious — that’s why experts say women should have these symptoms checked out by their doctor.
Blood where (and when) there shouldn’t be blood
Like men, women shouldn’t ignore blood in the stool or urine, or blood that’s coughed up (sputum). However, women should also talk to their doctors about unusual vaginal bleeding, including symptoms like:
- Bleeding or spotting between menstrual periods.
- Heavy bleeding.
- Bleeding and pain during intercourse.
- Bleeding or spotting after menopause.
Why the worry? Sometimes the cause can be serious — like endometrial, cervical, uterine or ovarian cancer. However, experts say women shouldn’t assume the worst. Some women experience bleeding when they ovulate, and unusual bleeding can be a sign of perimenopause in women over age 40. Some conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome, hyperthyroidism or pelvic inflammatory disease can cause abnormal bleeding – as can fibroids, certain medications (like birth control) and stress.
In many cases, the cause is treatable, so it’s worth a conversation with a doctor.
Unexplained changes in bowel habits
Blood in the stool isn’t the only issue worth a discussion with your doctor. It can be embarrassing to talk about our bodily functions, but when something is “off”, it’s important to learn why. Some symptoms worth mentioning include:
- Severe diarrhea lasting more than two days or mild diarrhea lasting a week.
- Constipation that lasts for more than two weeks.
- Unexplained urges to have a bowel movement.
- Bloody diarrhea.
- Black or tarry-colored stools
Sometimes these symptoms go hand in hand with nausea and pelvic pain. What would be the culprit? Digestive disorders could be to blame for pain and “irregularity” — like celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome. Food sensitivities and intolerances (like lactose intolerance) can cause upset, and so can a parasite or infection. With treatment, it’s possible to alleviate these symptoms.
Another symptom to be aware of: feeling full after eating very
little. Sometimes this “early satiety” can be caused by gastroesophageal
reflux disease (GERD) or irritable bowel syndrome, but it could be a
warning sign of ovarian or pancreatic cancer.
Unexplained weight loss or gain
Many women would love to lose weight without trying — but might think twice if they knew the potential cause. Unexplained weight loss has so many potential causes it takes an expert to sort through the possibilities. Changes in appetite or hormone levels can cause a drop in body weight, and the culprits could be diabetes, conditions affecting the hormones like hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) or Addison’s disease, cancer, depression or dementia. Disorders that affect your body’s ability to absorb nutrients — like celiac disease — can also lead to weight loss.
How much is too much? Doctors consider losing 5-10 per cent of one’s body weight within a six-month period worrisome, or a steadily dropping weight.
What about weight gain? Experts say it isn’t an inevitable part of aging. Instead, treatable causes could be the issue — like hypothyroidism (where the thyroid produces too little hormone), certain medications (like steroids and antidepressants) and conditions affecting the hormones (like polycystic ovary syndrome or Cushing’s disease).
The bottom line: doctors warn women to have any changes in weight checked out — especially before changing medications or eating habits.
Fatigue or a feeling of weakness
We all get tired from time to time, and it’s all too easy to blame it on stress or the exhaustion that comes from caring for everyone else before yourself. However, persistent and severe fatigue despite getting plenty of rest is a warning sign for doctors. There’s a long list of causes for this symptom: everything from sleep disorders to hormonal conditions (like hypothyroidism) and anemia to certain cancers (like leukemia).
However, fatigue that gets worse with activity can be an early warning sign of a heart attack in women, say experts. According to various sources, many women experience unusual fatigue in the weeks leading up to a heart attack or during a heart attack — often alongside symptoms like indigestion or heartburn, difficulty breathing, tightness or discomfort in the chest, neck or shoulders and anxiety. Doctors warn that women often don’t experience the same heart attack symptoms as men, and these subtle signs may mean they don’t get help soon enough. (For more information, visit Health Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation.)
Painful, red and swollen joints
Did you know that most types of arthritis are more common among women then men? And yes, that includes autoimmune forms like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Inflamed joints are hallmarks of these conditions, along with other symptoms such as fatigue, fever and weight loss. Autoimmune disorders can be hard to diagnose, but they shouldn’t go unchecked — it’s possible for the immune system to attack major organs as well as the joints.
Other possibilities? Viruses, fungi and bacteria can attack joints too. These infections can often be treated, but without a little help they can spread or cause permanent damage. While gout typically affects men more often then women, this condition has similar symptoms.
The bottom line for women: don’t suffer in silence. Get those joints looked at. A doctor may order x-rays and blood tests to help determine the cause.
Changes in mental status
While both sexes should talk to a doctor about any changes to their mental status — like confusion, disorientation or changes in behaviour — the major causes are more common in women. Sudden difficulty understanding, speaking or confusion can be a sign of a stroke — an emergency which needs immediate treatment. Recurring episodes of these symptoms could point to dementia.
As with other symptoms, sometimes the cause isn’t so sinister. Dehydration, an infection or a drop in blood pressure can also cause confusion and disorientation, especially in older adults. They could also be due to side effects of medications or combinations of medications. Regardless, a doctor should have the final say as to the cause.
New or more severe headaches
Most people experience headaches — and much of the time they’re just an annoyance. However, a new pattern of headaches or severe headaches need to be investigated, say experts. Why? A sudden, severe headache could be a warning of something serious, like a stroke, head injury, tumour, aneurysm or inflammation of the blood vessels in the head. Experts say that anyone who experiences that “worst headache of your life” feeling — especially if they don’t usually suffer from headaches — should get help promptly.
Other culprits? Women are three times as likely to suffer the wrath of a migraine than men. Headaches can also be caused by stress on the eyes from lengthy hours on a computer. If everyone in a household gets a headache at the same time, a carbon monoxide leak could be to blame.
It’s worth repeating that headaches are common and usually harmless, but experts warn they still shouldn’t be underestimated. If they’re sudden and severe, or they keep you from your daily activities, experts say to seek medical attention. (See Just another headache or something worse?)
Of course, this list mentions just a few of the symptoms we often overlook. The causes can be scary, but most of the time there isn’t a life or death condition behind these symptoms. The message from experts is to be aware, but not to panic. When in doubt, it’s better to be safe than sorry — and the sooner you get a diagnosis and treatment, the better.
Sources: The Arthritis Society, The Canadian Cancer Society, Heart and Stroke Foundation, MayoClinic.com, MSNBC.com, U.S. National Institutes of Health, WebMD