SERIOUS SYMPTOM OR NOT? 4 suggestions to help

How do I know what symptom is concerning? I have heard, “I didn’t call my doctor because I didn’t know it was serious.”  Many people google symptoms to figure out what the cause could be.  They then try to determine what to do based on that.  I’ve been in medicine since 1999 but even I get thoroughly confused when I look up symptoms on the internet.  Every single symptom can represent dozens of problems.  How then might a non-medically trained person know what is serious and what isn’t?

Well, stay with me here and you’ll find out.  I won’t bother you with a long list of “if this, then that”.  I won’t even list any symptoms.  I have just 4 suggestions that will help you figure out any situation.

Remember that health summary:  Having a health summary and updating it at each doctor appointment, will serve as a reminder.  Always ask your doctor what symptoms to look out for.  A person treated for a heart attack, wants to report pain in their calves with walking (could indicate disease of the blood vessels).  Someone who has lymphoma in remission, wants to report unusual fever or night sweats.  Your doctor knows your situation well and can list a few symptoms to watch out for.

A few simple instructions always hold true: No matter how small a problem might seem, if it isn’t getting better, it’s probably helpful to call your doctor.  If a symptom persists and new problems develop, it might also indicate something more serious.  For example, a minor pain in the toe can be watched but if the toe turns blue-black or red, that can mean more.  A young 20-something year old woman can take tylenol for a headache but if she suddenly has blurry vision, she should call.  Another simple instruction is that something new and persistent needs to be looked at.  If a 40 year old suddenly has headaches (never before in the past), they should call.

Whenever in doubt, do call your doctor’s office: Your doctor isn’t there only for appointments.  He/she has a staff (usually nurses) that can help you figure out what symptoms are worrisome and which aren’t.  It is always unfortunate to learn that someone waited for weeks because they had an appointment coming up, when a serious problem was actually going on.  Pick up the phone, call and ask.  Your doctor’s office staff will help you prioritize.

Here’s where Dr. Google might scare rather than help:  Remember to be careful looking up symptoms on the internet.  Yes, you may get lucky and fall upon an accurate list of possible conditions.  More likely though, you’ll be even more overwhelmed and confused.  Dr. Google may be more helpful for general information, rather than specific advice for a situation.

Question: Have you struggled to figure out when to be concerned or not? What other tips have you found useful? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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Author of "Self navigate for health" available as eBook on Amazon and paperback on Lulu. Hematology-oncology physician writing about medical self-advocacy or "self-navigation", cancer, blood disorders, and books

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