Mind and Body

Do you need to worry about these health symptoms?



You have a chronic cough, or maybe you’re experiencing hair loss. Should you be concerned? Consult this practical guide.

1. Chronic Thirst
Alarmist scenario: Type 2 diabetes.

More likely cause: Your body is telling you to drink more water. If you exercise frequently, you need extra fluid to make up for what you lose through sweat. Dry, overheated air and some medications, including diuretics, can also make you unusually thirsty.

Reality check: “Unless you're thirsty all the time and you urinate frequently, increased thirst doesn’t necessarily suggest diabetes,” says endocrinologist Larry Deeb, the medical director of the Diabetes Center at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, in Fla. Other symptoms of type 2 diabetes include extreme hunger, unusual weight loss, fatigue, irritability, and blurry vision.

Rx: Keep a “water log” for a few weeks to track how much you’re drinking, then consult your doctor. Diabetes can be diagnosed with a simple urine or blood test.

2. Breast Pain
Alarmist scenario: Breast cancer.

More likely cause: Fluctuating levels of hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, which can cause breast cells to expand in the latter part of the menstrual cycle.

Reality check: “Breast pain, in isolation, is almost never cancer,” says oncologist Richard Elledge, an associate professor of medicine at the Breast Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. “You don’t need to worry,” he says, “unless you have symptoms, such as new lumps, that don’t come and go with menstruation; changes in the color or some other appearance of the skin over the breasts; or bloody discharge from the nipples.”

Rx: If breast pain is a frequent problem, limit yourself to two cups of caffeinated beverages a day. “Some women find that cutting back reduces discomfort,” says Elledge. If the pain persists, ask a doctor about danazol, a synthetic steroid that reduces hormonal fluctuations.

3. Chronic Cough
Alarmist scenario: Lung cancer or emphysema.

More likely cause: A cold, acute bronchitis, postnasal drip from a cold or allergies, or acid reflux.

Reality check: “Symptoms of lung cancer do not come on suddenly,” says pulmonologist Norman H. Edelman, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. “Cigarette smoking causes 87 percent of lung cancers, so if you don’t smoke, your risk is low.” Smoking is also the leading cause of emphysema.

Rx: If your cough lasts more than four weeks, see a doctor. “If you cough mostly at night, avoid eating within three hours of bedtime, since gastric reflux can contribute to a cough,” says Edelman.

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4. Chronic Headaches
Alarmist scenario: A brain tumor.

More likely cause: A tension headache or a migraine.

Reality check: “Headaches alone don’t make me look for a brain tumor,” says neurologist MaryAnn Mays, a staff physician at the Headache Center at the Cleveland Clinic. A brain tumor would typically involve symptoms such as sudden muscle weakness, headaches that wake you from sleep, numbness, personality changes, lack of coordination, vomiting, and changes in vision, hearing, and speech.

Rx: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, usually relieve tension headaches and mild migraines. If your headaches persist for more than two weeks or if your migraines aren’t helped by over-the-counter NSAIDs, like Excedrin Migraine, see your doctor.

5. Chest Pain
Alarmist scenario:
A heart attack.

More likely cause: Muscle strain following exercise or heavy lifting, gastric reflux, heartburn, soreness that results from a bad cough, or lung irritation from an upper-respiratory infection.

Reality check: Heart attacks are relatively rare in people under the age of 45. The average age among women for a first heart attack is 70.

Rx: Because getting treatment within one hour of a heart attack increases the survival rate, experts say not to ignore intense chest pain that lasts for more than five minutes. “I’ve had female patients as young as 32 have heart attacks,” says cardiologist Richard Stein, the director of preventive cardiology at Beth Israel Medical Center, in New York City. If the pain lasts for more than five minutes, call 911.

6. Hair Loss
Alarmist scenario: The beginnings of baldness.

More likely cause: Stress, pregnancy (typically about three months after giving birth), medications (including birth-control pills and antidepressants), or being over 40.

Reality check: “Although hair loss is a common complaint, for women under 50 it’s often likely to be temporary and due to stress or medications,” says endocrinologist Gregory Brent, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Rx: If hair is falling out from the top of your scalp but not the back, see a dermatologist. In some cases, minoxidil (Rogaine) can help the hair regrow. If a hormone imbalance is the cause, correcting that can help.

7. A New Mole, Pigmented Skin Growth, or Spot
Alarmist scenario: Skin cancer.

More likely cause: A harmless mole, a seborrheic keratosis (a wartlike growth common in people over 40), or an age spot.

Reality check: Skin is constantly changing, in part due to sun exposure. Many changes are harmless, but “if you’re over 30, take new moles seriously,” says Dr. Deborah Sarnoff,  a professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine.

Rx: Do monthly self-exams and get a skin-cancer check from a dermatologist every three years if you’re between the ages of 20 and 40 and annually after age 40. The ABCDE warning signs for skin cancer are a mole or a spot that is asymmetrical, has an irregular border, is unevenly colored (or has patches of red, white, or blue), has a diameter wider than a quarter inch, or seems to be evolving.

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