In most cases, men use a three-tiered system for handling medical problems: Gaping flesh wounds warrant a trip to the E.R., blood-flecked phlegm calls for a doctor visit and anything less demands a big dose of "suck it up."
And you know what? Sometimes this mentality toward men's health makes sense, especially when so many minor conditions are merely inconveniences, the kind that can easily be cured with time, aspirin or a sterilized Swiss Army knife. That said, there are also instances in which ailments that seem innocuous—nosebleeds, knee pain, a new pimple—are actually harbingers of a heavy-duty health problem.
The key, of course, is knowing what's worthy of worry. We've made it simple. What follows is a brief rundown on third-tier complaints that just might be trying to warn you about a first-tier health problem.
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We usually write off random nosebleeds because we think we know the cause—dry air, aggressive nose-blowing, angry ex-girlfriend. But out-of-the-blue bleeds can also be one of the few outward signs of a serious men's health problem: high blood pressure, a condition that strikes nearly 8 percent of men between the ages of 20 and 34.
If you don't have your blood pressure checked annually, your tip-off may come from a nasal gush.
"You get nosebleeds because the small vessels in the nose have tiny cracks, and the high pressure pushes blood out of them," Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of The Dr. Oz Show, said.
If you can't connect your spontaneous spurt of blood to a specific trigger, make an appointment to have your BP checked (or pick up a home monitor and do it yourself). Anything between 120/80 and 139/89 spells prehypertension, while readings of 140/90 or higher indicate full-blown high blood pressure and the need for medication.
Whatever your score, try to begin every a.m. with oatmeal topped with flaxseed. A study published in Hypertension showed that linolenic acid—a fatty acid found in flaxseed—is associated with lower rates of elevated blood pressure. And a study review published in the Journal of Hypertension determined that people who ate higher amounts of fiber dropped both their systolic and diastolic BP by as much as three points.
It's not uncommon to feel a creak, tweak or twinge in your knees after intense activity. But if the ache lasts longer than two hours, it may indicate osteoarthritis, Dr. Virginia Kraus, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University medical school, said.
The first step, she says, is to rule out overexertion as the culprit. Cut back on the duration of your exercise regimen, then monitor your knee pain.
"If symptoms persist beyond three months, it suggests an underlying musculoskeletal problem," Kraus said. (Note: If you had a knee injury when you were younger, you're especially prone to osteoarthritis, according to a Johns Hopkins study.)
The best way to ID osteoarthritis is with a standard x-ray, which will reveal whether the space between the joints has diminished due to cartilage loss. If the diagnosis comes back positive, talk to your doctor about acupuncture. University of Maryland researchers recently discovered that traditional Chinese acupuncture can decrease osteoarthritis pain by 40 percent.
No joint trouble? Keep it that way by always icing your knees after exercise (the cold decreases swelling that sabotages cartilage) and by shedding about a dozen pounds. In a study review by the National Institutes of Health, people who lost 11 pounds cut their osteoarthritis risk in half.
(Eat 30 percent less with this easy research-proven trick: The Easiest Way to Shrink Your Gut.)
Swallowing is sheer masochism when you have a sore throat, yet according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, up to 40 percent of adults pop antibiotics for the condition, even though there's no evidence that the cause is bacterial.
Most men, however, go to the other extreme and try to wait out a sore throat, no matter how much it hurts or for how long—not a wise move, especially if the sensation of crushed glass in your gullet lasts more than three days or changes the way you speak. Both symptoms signal the possibility of strep throat—and the need for professional help.
"If the infection gets deep into your tonsils, the lymph nodes and surrounding tissue are overwhelmed with pus and can't drain," Oz said. "That can close your airways so you can't breathe."
Ask your doctor to swab your throat for a rapid antigen test, an exam that can detect a strep infection within minutes. If it comes back positive, then you really will need antibiotics. (Penicillin is still preferred.)
On the other hand, a clean reading doesn't guarantee anything: The rapid antigen test is accurate only 88 percent of the time, according to a study in Pediatrics. Insist that your doctor send out your spit sample for a bacterial culture, a strep test that's more time-consuming (one to two day turnaround time) but more precise (95 percent accuracy).
One other note: If your doctor is writing out a script for penicillin, ask him about adding one for the corticosteroid prednisone. Researchers in Israel recently found that sore-throat sufferers taking 60 milligrams of prednisone daily had 33 percent less pain after 12 hours than those who were given a placebo. (Is it allergies or a cold? See why your throat really is scratchy.)
A blister caused by skin-on-sock friction may be a sign that you need to spring for new shoes, but it's hardly a health threat. However, blisters that pop up between your toes as a result of athlete's foot are, in fact, a medical emergency in the making.
"When the blistering causes a crack between the toes, bacteria can invade the area," Richard Braver, a New Jersey sports podiatrist and a fellow of the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, said. "Every year, I have male patients who end up in the hospital for five to seven days with IV antibiotics because of foot infections that could have been prevented."
That means intercepting the fungal infection before it reaches the blistering point. At the first sign of athlete's foot, do the obvious: Start using an over-the-counter cream such as Lamisil twice a day. But before your evening application, soak your feet in a solution of warm water and Epsom salts for 20 minutes; the salt will help suck moisture, a.k.a. fungus fuel, from the affected area.
Follow this regimen for two weeks, and if you don't see improvement, ask your doctor about ciclopirox gel, a prescription medication that's been shown in studies to kick both fungal and bacterial butt.
Already beset with blisters? Call your doctor; you may need antibiotics, stat.
Acne is the Trojan horse of health. A bump that at first glance looks like a run-of-the-mill pimple may actually be basal-cell carcinoma, a slow-growing form of skin cancer.
"Men as a group tend to ignore these lesions," Dr. Edward McClay, director of the San Diego Melanoma Research Center, said.
So what's the difference between a zit and a tiny tumor?
"The typical basal-cell carcinoma has a pearly appearance when light shines on it, and tiny blood vessels can be seen entering the nodule at the base," McClay said.
If you spot a pimple that won't go away, have a dermatologist check it out (and don't try to pop it—it could spread); basal-cell carcinoma is 95 percent treatable when caught early. The usual treatments—attacking it with a scalpel or using a combination of scraping and burning—can leave scarring, so consider getting zapped with a continuous-wave Nd:Yag laser. When researchers in Egypt treated 37 patients with this device, 36 were completely cured and had next to no scarring.
The fact that one person in the study grew a new tumor isn't unexpected—the average recurrence rate of basal-cell carcinoma is nearly 25 percent—but it was avoidable. Everyone, especially cancer survivors, should not only slather on sunscreen (at least SPF 30) but also don sunglasses that provide 100 percent UV protection; a Finnish study found that recent incidence of basal-cell carcinoma on eyelids has doubled.
It's easy to write off leg pain as a cramp, soreness or the dog attached to your ankle. But it can also mean something's awry up top, in your heart. Here's why: The first sign of a gunked-up circulatory system is often leg pain, not chest pain, because the legs' longer blood vessels become blocked by plaque earlier, resulting in a shortage of oxygen to the muscles.
And while that ache can occur anywhere below the waist—thighs, calves, feet—the "when" is often more specific.
"Leg pain with arterial blockages usually gets worse as you exercise," Oz said, explaining that the greater the exercise intensity, the greater the oxygen demand. (To build wheels of steel for life, try the Ultimate Lower-Body Workout.)
The medical name for clogged leg vessels is peripheral arterial disease (PAD), and one of the best tests for it is Doppler ultrasonography. If the ultrasound detects narrowed arteries and they don't pose an imminent threat, your doctor will probably prescribe exercise (taking breaks when the pain intensifies), a statin to lower LDL cholesterol, and a drug such as cilostazol to improve bloodflow.
And the prescription for preventing PAD in the first place? Quit smoking, cut out all trans fats, drink more OJ to raise levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind), and take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. A study in the Journal of Nutrition found that men who swallowed supplemental folic acid every day had a 32 percent lower risk of PAD than those who didn't fortify themselves.