42 Strange Symptoms That Can Signal a Serious Disease
So often your lumps, bumps, rashes, and red spots are harmless. Occasionally, they're a sign of something far more serious. Here's how to tell the difference.
Your neck looks dirty
A rash-like discoloration called acanthosis nigricans “almost looks like dirt but has a velvety feel,” says Todd Sontag, DO, a family medicine specialist with Orlando Health Physician Associates. He commonly sees it on the back of the neck or in the armpit. This is often a sign of diabetes or insulin resistance. “Patients will come in asking about this rash they can’t get rid of,” he notes. A doctor will order blood tests to check blood sugar levels to make the diagnosis.
You’re a woman and you’re sprouting chin hairs
This can be a sign of polycystic ovary syndrome, notes Dr. Sontag. “Usually you see just a few hairs, but they’re dark and coarse like a man’s beard,” he notes. The hormonal imbalance may also affect your period, and can thus impact your fertility. A look at your medical history and symptoms can point your doctor in the right direction.
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You see blood spots in your eyes
The health condition is known as a subconjunctival hemorrhage, and the American Heart Association notes that this is more common with people who have high blood pressure or diabetes. While these conditions don’t cause the spots, the two are linked, they note, which gives you yet another reason to visit the eye doctor every two years.
Here are seven silent signs you might have eye cataracts.
Your big toe is swollen
You don’t remember stubbing it—and it’s not like you’d forget. You could be looking at an early symptom of gout, which is not only painful but can signal risk for chronic diseases like high blood pressure and kidney disease. A medical history plus examination at the MD office can diagnose it.
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You have a major hankering for ice
Occasionally, a patient will come see Dr. Sontag and say “all I want to do is eat ice all day,” he notes. That’s a sign of iron-deficiency anemia. You’ll need a blood workup, and your doc will want to figure out why you’re anemic—are you losing blood or not making enough? The answer will direct your care, he notes.
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Your eyes are bulging
If this is something that seems new—in pictures from last year they look normal—it could be an overactive thyroid, says Dr. Sontag. You may also notice other symptoms like unexplained weight loss or irritability. A thyroid blood test will ID the problem. Iodine treatment can slow your thyroid, and you can manage the issue with thyroid medications. However, Dr. Sontag notes that sometimes thyroid problems are self-limiting and resolve on its own.
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You’ve gotten shorter
If you’re wondering how your jeans got longer, you could be witnessing one of the silent signs of osteoporosis. As your bones weaken, the vertebrae in your spine begin to compress and you start to lose height. If you’re 1.5 inches shorter than you were in your 20s, see your doctor.
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Your urine is cloudy
When you pee, it should be clear and the colour of light lemonade. If it’s darker yellow, you could be dehydrated; when it’s almost clear, you may be too hydrated. But if it’s cloudy or very dark, you could have a bladder stone that’s irritating the wall of your bladder. A physical exam and urinalysis can pinpoint the issue.
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Your feet feel like they’re attached to bricks
This could be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a condition that hits women more than men and often strikes those between the ages of 20 and 40. Fatigue (with or without joint pain) is another common symptom. Feeling stiff for four weeks warrants a trip to the MD to make sure everything is OK.
Here are 10 types of arthritis you could have—and how to tell the difference!
Your stools are black
No doubt it’s an alarming sight, but there are a couple possibilities: One, you’re taking Pepto Bismol, which can turn them black. Two, the colour can be a sign of digested blood, in which case your doctor may consider more serious issues like a stomach ulcer or GI cancer.
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Your stools are green
Yikes! Green poop certainly gets your attention. “This is often some sort of infection, like giardia or salmonella,” says Dr. Sontag. Your doctor will ask whether you’ve been abroad or camped or hiked recently and then consider testing.
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Your pee looks pink
Pink or red pee is a sign of blood in your urine. The most likely causes are a urinary tract or kidney infection, but it can also be present in later stages of kidney, bladder, or prostate cancer, notes the Mayo Clinic. A urinalysis will be used, in part, to uncover the cause of the bleeding.
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Your pee looks like cola
This should set off immediate alarm bells—particularly after an extreme workout or, say, running a marathon. It could be rhabdomyolysis, which happens when muscle tissue breaks down, enters your bloodstream, and causes kidney damage. This serious disease warrants a trip to the ER.
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Your mouth is burning
Appropriately called “burning mouth syndrome,” this may be due to damage to pain and taste nerves. You’ll notice a painful burn or tingle in your mouth that’s frequent and sticks around for months. While there’s no test to diagnose this problem, your doctor will do a thorough workup to rule out other potential causes and may give you a prescription that can ease your discomfort.
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Your leg hurts when you walk
Certainly, the first thing you want to think about would be: Did I injure myself on that hike I took last weekend or did I overdo it running more miles than I should? However, if the pain can’t be linked to an injury and it feels like your actual bone is hurting, it may be bone cancer (even if the pain comes and goes). Talk to your doctor about getting a biopsy.
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You pee all the time
Yes, an increase in bathroom visits can be because of a urinary tract infection—though UTIs usually have that tell-tale burn. However, if you pee constantly and have an unquenchable thirst, you may be developing diabetes, notes Dr. Sontag. If you notice that you’re going much more frequently than before or are waking up throughout the night to relieve yourself, talk to your doctor.
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Your nipples are leaking
Not breastfeeding? Not having sex? Then it may be a condition called galactorrhea. It could be an underlying medical problem like a prolactinoma, a benign tumour on your pituitary gland. While not always harmful on its own, the tumour can lead to irregular periods and interfere with your fertility. Blood tests can help your doctor uncover the underlying cause of your leakage.
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You sit down to watch TV and immediately snooze
What seems like a commonplace event—it was a boring show anyway!—can mean something more: Most notably, sleep apnea. “I diagnose this a few times per week,” Dr. Sontag says. It’s more than an issue of disruptive snoring, he says: “Some patients hold their breath when they sleep for two minutes at a time. You’re not getting enough oxygen throughout the night,” he says. Sleep machines have come a long way; they’re smaller and quieter today. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor if you snore, feel unusually tired throughout the day, or your partner says you stop breathing at night.
Check out these 12 secrets to a deeper sleep!
You wake up exhausted
This can be a sign of restless leg syndrome, or RLS. “You wake up tired because your body has never fully relaxed at night,” says Dr. Sontag. You may also have a strong urge to move your legs that gets worse when you’re sitting down. An evaluation of your medical history and symptoms can help point your MD in the right direction.
Here are nine ways to treat restless leg syndrome.
You gained 20 pounds this month
Many people blame their weight gain on a sluggish thyroid—after all, this butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck helps control your metabolism. But a slow creep in weight is less likely with a malfunctioning thyroid than sudden weight gain—like 20 pounds in a month—says Dr. Sontag. Either way, your doctor may want to do a thyroid blood test to rule out the condition.
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You swallow and something feels stuck
If you frequently feel like food is caught in your throat or find yourself changing the way you eat (like taking baby bites or avoiding certain bulky foods), this may be a sign of esophageal cancer. A medical history and physical exam can tell your doctor if it’s a possibility. If so, they may order an imaging test to check for cancer.
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Your breast skin is nubbly like an orange peel
Dimpled skin may be a sign of underlying breast cancer, says Dr. Sontag. “The orange peel look comes from swelling,” he adds and may be caused by inflammatory breast cancer. (The term is called “peau d’orange.”) A physical exam will be up first, and your doctor may examine breast tissue through a mammogram or ultrasound.
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You have a lump on your shoulder
Oddly enough, developing a lymph node on the top of your left clavicle can be a sign of stomach cancer, says Dr. Sontag. (This is called Virchow’s node.) If you notice any strange lumps or bumps that have recently appeared, call your doctor.
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You have a lump around your belly button
A soft bulge around this area may be what’s called an umbilical hernia. But you’re right to get it checked out by your doctor: It could also be a lymph node called a Sister Mary Joseph nodule, and a sign of underlying cancer, says Dr. Sontag. “Sometimes your body is doing what it should, and it’s OK to have lumps. But any time you notice anything unusual that’s changed, it’s always worth getting checked out,” he says.
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You’re bleeding after menopause
Light spotting isn’t anything to be worried about—in fact, it’s often normal. But period-like bleeding warrants a trip to your doctor who may be concerned about uterine cancer. Early diagnosis is key: Women diagnosed in stage 1 have a five-year survival rate of 88 per cent.
Here are the body signs no one tells you will come before menopause.
You have a new spot on your skin
You know to look for changing moles that are irregular in shape, size, or colour, but a new one that pops up should raise your suspicion even more. A new study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 70 per cent of melanomas arose from a new mole, while only 30 per cent sprang from an existing one. Talk to your derm about any new skin spots, and get an annual skin check to make sure your body-wide complexion is in the clear.
Here’s more on the alarming rise of melanoma in Canada.
You’re really bloated
Beyond simply eating too much sushi (hello, soya sauce) or expecting your period any day now, abnormal and uncomfortable bloating can be a sign of ovarian cancer. You may also pee more frequently, grapple with pelvic pain, or experience pain during sex. If your doctor suspects ovarian cancer, they will first run a physical exam to look for things like an enlarged ovary.
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Your feet are itching like crazy
Are you pregnant? A liver disease called cholestasis of pregnancy can cause severe, drive-you-batty itching on your hands and feet. It’s rare, but something to watch out for: While mom isn’t at risk (except for the itching), it can be dangerous for the baby; it increases the likelihood of complications like preterm delivery. Inducing labor may be one option your OB/GYN will consider.
Here are nine clear signs you have fatty liver disease.
Your skin itches all over
There’s another cause for itchy skin not related to pregnancy—liver damage called cirrhosis. As the American Liver Foundation points out, early damage to the organ often carries zero symptoms. Later you sufferers may experience itching or a yellow cast to their skin, called jaundice. Luckily, after diagnosis, you can prevent further damage by eating healthy and exercising.
You’re bleeding after sex
If your first thought is, well, we haven’t done that in a while, hang on: Bleeding after sex isn’t typical. There are a host of potential causes—ranging from vaginal dryness to cervical polyps—but cervical cancer also falls on that list. While it may be frightening, it’s important to bring it up with your MD who will consider a range of causes and work to rule out cervical cancer.
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You develop a bulls-eye rash
If you see a red rash in the shape of a bulls-eye popping up on your skin, you should immediately call your doctor. The first thing they’ll check for is Lyme disease. Caused by a tick bite, the disease can also cause more sneaky symptoms like fatigue, lack of focus, and a sore throat. While only 70 to 80 per cent of people develop a rash, it may also take on various shapes and colours, like multiple rashes or may even have a blue hue. If you notice these symptoms or anything out of the ordinary after spending time outside where Lyme-carrying ticks live, talk to your doctor.
Here’s what you need to know about Lyme disease in Canada.
You have a red, splotchy rash on your feet
Lyme isn’t the only tick-borne illness you have to watch out for. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, caused by the bacteria Rickettsia rickettsii, can be life-threatening. You may notice nondescript symptoms like a fever or a headache (which can be chalked up to the flu), but most many patients will also develop a red splotchy rash starting from their ankles and wrists and moving up the body. If you get sick after hiking or camping, call your doctor.
You don’t feel… right
Yep, this is really vague, but weird, vague “something isn’t right” symptoms should set off alarm bells—possibly for a heart attack. Women don’t always get the classic chest pain symptoms of a heart attack; it can manifest as more silent signs like feeling tired, upper back pain. “With anything out of the ordinary that suddenly pops up without a clear explanation, it doesn’t hurt to have a heart attack in the back of your mind,” says Dr. Sontag. Call your doctor or go to the ER.
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You can’t get rid of those canker sores
With so many symptoms of celiac disease (300!), diagnosis can be difficult. And while GI issues like diarrhea, constipation, and bloating are common, so too are more head-scratching ones like canker sores, reports Beyond Celiac. You may notice these in your cheeks, gums, or lips, and they can be painful. While it’s not a slam dunk for diagnosis, also watch out for other symptoms of celiac, like mood problems, joint pain, and infertility.
Check out these home remedies for canker sores!
You can’t hear well out of one ear
If you’ve been hearing ringing or sounds are muffled in one ear, you may have an acoustic neuroma, a rare, non-cancerous and often slow-growing tumour, according to the Acoustic Neuroma Association. That’s not to say it’s not dangerous. As it grows, it can cause balance problems and even be life-threatening. If your doctor suspects this, an MRI can confirm the diagnosis.
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Your eyebrows are thinning
And you thought you just didn’t have to pluck them anymore. Hair loss, including from your eyebrows, can be a sign that your system is working sluggishly thanks to an underactive thyroid (also called hypothyroidism), says Dr. Sontag. Watch out for other symptoms like feeling cold all the time and constipation. Again, your doc will want to run a simple blood test to evaluate the function of your thyroid.
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You bruise easily
When you look down, suddenly you see a bunch of discolourations dotting your legs. Have you just been extra clumsy? Maybe, but it can also be leukemia. Low blood platelet counts can make you more susceptible to bruises, notes the American Cancer Society. Of course, this doesn’t have to be your first worry, but if your doc suspects a problem, they will check your blood cell count before more invasive testing, like taking a bone marrow sample.
Here are 16 silent signs of leukemia you shouldn’t ignore.
You notice a black streak on your nail
The primary place you likely suspect skin cancer is, well, your skin, but it can also appear on the skin of your nailbed, too. Called acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM), this type of skin cancer can look like a dark streak under your nail. If you don’t know what caused it (like smashing your finger in the door) and it’s recently appeared, see a dermatologist for an evaluation.
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