Health symptoms we should never ignore
People get sick all the time, but there are some health symptoms we should never ignore.
We all get sick, and usually we will get better with no treatment other than time and bed rest.
But some symptoms are signs of serious and life-threatening conditions that need urgent attention.
So how can you tell when to let nature take its course and when to act?
You should always act immediately if you or someone you are with has:
- chest pain (for 5-10 minutes)
- facial or limb weakness
- slurred speech.
Not all chest pain is a heart attack, but unless you know for sure that it's something less serious, such as heart burn or indigestion (because you get it regularly), then act.
People die every day because they do not take their heart attack warning signs seriously.
"Even if you get indigestion, the first time it's worthwhile getting it diagnosed (to rule out cardiovascular problems)," explains Dr Ronald McCoy, Melbourne GP and Royal Australian College of General Practitioners spokesman.
Signs of a heart attack include:
- pain, pressure, heaviness or tightness in the chest,
- pain in the shoulder (especially the left), neck, back, arms, jaw and teeth
- a cold sweat;
Dr Lyn Roberts, National CEO of the Heart Foundation says it's important to understand: "heart attack warning signs aren't always what you think - symptoms are not necessarily sudden or severe and some people don't experience chest pain at all."
"Chest pain is the most common heart attack warning sign for men and women, but women are more likely to experience less well known symptoms such as jaw, neck and back pain."
The Heart Foundation says if you experience any of the heart attack warning signs for more than 10 minutes, or if they are severe or get progressively worse: Call 112 (on your mobile phone if your normal reception is poor or absent).
It is better to call an ambulance because paramedics can start treatment immediately, says emergency physician Associate Professor Richard Paoloni, director of Emergency Medicine at Concord Hospital and NSW Faculty Chair of the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine.
"If you're having a heart attack, your heart can stop or go into an abnormal rhythm and if you are in the passenger seat of someone's car, there is nothing you can do. By the time you get to hospital it's probably too late," says Paoloni.
Weakness in the body or speech difficulties can be a sign of stroke. As is the case with heart attacks, people having strokes need urgent medical attention.
FAST is an acronym to help people identify a possible stroke:
- Face – check their mouth, has it drooped?
- Arms – can they lift both?
- Speech – is it slurred? Can they understand you?
- Time to call 112 (on your mobile phone if your normal reception is poor or absent).
Other signs of stroke include dizziness, loss of balance, an unexplained fall, severe and sudden headache and difficulty swallowing.
Getting to hospital as soon as possible is important because clot-busting therapy (thrombolysis) works best in eligible stroke patients when delivered three hours after the first sign of symptoms.
You may think someone is having a stroke, only to find their symptoms disappear completely within minutes, hours or even days. But you still need to make sure they get checked by a doctor or hospital.
"Once you've had one stroke, even if it resolves completely, you are at an incredibly high risk of having another one if you don't do anything about it," says Paoloni.
Go to hospital
You should also get to a doctor or hospital ASAP if you:
- develop any new and/or sudden, unexpected, unusual pain or severe changes in your health
- become very sick, very quickly
- experience visual disturbances or loss of vision.
You shouldn't ignore new symptoms that are severe and come out of nowhere.
For example, meningitis can start out like the flu; and while it is an uncommon disease it can be deadly.
"We have all had flu or colds and we know how they feel, so if there is something particularly out of the ordinary ... (or) if you were well a couple of hours ago and now you feel awful, that's unusual," says Paoloni.
McCoy adds people with meningitis get very sick very fast: in a matter of hours. Other symptoms can – but not always – include neck stiffness and a purple rash that doesn't blanch (which means it doesn't disappear when you put a glass against the skin).
Also major and sudden changes in vision can be a symptom of serious eye conditions, such as retinal detachment (where the retina peels off the back of the eye) and acute glaucoma, both of which can progress in just hours or days and lead to blindness.
Children and older people
Because children, the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions can deteriorate much faster, you should always get medical help if you are concerned.
"If there's something wrong, you've done the right thing (seeking medical advice); if there isn't, you can be reassured and no harm is done," says McCoy.
But as most parents will declare, when it's late on a cold, wet Sunday night it can be difficult to know if a trip to hospital is warranted.
This is when you need to trust your instinct and gauge your level of concern, says Paoloni.
"I often say to doctors, if you're not going to sleep tonight because you are worried (about a patient), you need to do more. It's the same for parents," he says.
"We put great importance on what parents tell us about their children. If they say, 'I have never seen him like this,' we sit up and pay attention. It's the same with elderly people."
So if you are worried about someone then ask yourself two questions:
- How does their condition compare to previous similar health complaints? If it is markedly different, go to hospital. If it's only slightly different, it can probably wait until morning.
- Will I sleep tonight? If not and you are sufficiently worried, go to hospital.
It's one thing for you to know that someone needs to get emergency help, but convincing family members, friends or colleagues to follow your advice can be difficult.
Bearing in mind you can't force any competent adult to seek medical advice, you can:
- calmly tell them your concerns and recommend they seek medical advice.
- provide support and offer to visit the doctor with them.
- be persistent and enlist the help of family and friends.
- call your GP or medical helplines for advice, and pass the phone to your loved one.
- call 112 if it's an emergency or if you are very concerned. Ambulance officers can make an assessment and provide treatment – or reassurance if they don't believe it's serious.
If it's your own symptoms you're worried about, don't be afraid to ask family and friends for support, call your GP or the helplines for advice or, better still, visit a doctor and let them decide if your condition is serious or not.