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Is It Something Serious?

That's particularly true with health topics that are in the news and generating lots of discussion. So how do you know if you're dealing with something minor and temporary, or something more serious? Frequency, duration, severity and the rate of onset for symptoms are key factors to consider. Always seek medical attention for intense pain or severe symptoms that come on suddenly. But for most of life's minor illness and pains, consider these guidelines to help determine what's normal:

  • Headaches. An occasional mild headache during a stressful day is normal. An increase in frequency or severity of headaches should be discussed with your doctor as soon as possible. And a single headache that comes on suddenly and is accompanied by severe pain, blurry vision, weakness or confusion requires immediate medical attention.

  • Dry cough. A sudden, hacking cough after inhaling an irritant such as dust or smoke is normal. And a dry cough that lingers up to three weeks after a cold can also be normal. But a cough with no known cause, or one that continues more than six weeks, could be a sign of something more serious. See your doctor to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.

  • Nausea and vomiting. Vomiting in adults usually has a clear cause, such as motion sickness, food poisoning, emotional stress or fear, or even overeating or drinking too much alcohol. While unpleasant, these episodes usually last less than 24 hours and aren't typically serious. But vomiting can also indicate something serious, such as concussion, meningitis, appendicitis and more. Always seek immediate medical attention if vomiting occurs after a blow to the head, is accompanied by intense pain or a fever, or lasts more than two days.

  • Diarrhea. Even healthy and cautious adults are likely to experience three or four bouts of diarrhea every year. Medication, stress and food intolerance are common culprits, as are the contaminated food and water that result in "traveler's diarrhea". In most cases, the diarrhea (and often gas, cramping and nausea) will pass within two or three days without treatment. Consult your doctor if diarrhea lasts more than three days, includes severe abdominal or rectal pain, is accompanied by a fever, or looks bloody or black and tarry. Chronic diarrhea (multiple episodes lasting two weeks or more) can be a symptom of many serious conditions, including Celiac disease, pancreatitis, irritable bowel syndrome and diabetes, and should be discussed with your doctor immediately.

  • Fatigue. Most of us can relate to the occasional fatigue that comes from working too hard, sleeping too little, and skimping on nutrition and exercise. The remedy is usually obvious: slow down, eat properly, take time to relax, and get enough sleep every night. But fatigue that persists despite lifestyle changes is not normal, and may be due to medications or untreated conditions such as depression or anxiety, thyroid disorders, or anemia. Extreme fatigue can also be a symptom of other serious illnesses including cancer, heart disease, and kidney disease. Talk to your doctor if your fatigue doesn't respond to lifestyle changes, gets progressively worse, or interferes with your ability to function.

  • Indigestion. Occasional indigestion – feeling overly full or bloated, experiencing excess gas and mild abdominal pain – is very common, particularly after a heavy or high-fat meal. Most indigestion can be prevented by eating smaller meals more slowly, limiting alcohol consumption to one or two drinks, and stopping smoking. But frequent or increasingly uncomfortable indigestion could indicate an ulcer, GERD, stomach infection, irritable bowel syndrome, thyroid disease and other serious conditions. If indigestion persists despite lifestyle and dietary changes, consult your physician.

If you are uncertain whether or not something could be serious, always contact your doctor. Your primary care physician (PCP) is your best advocate and partner for your ongoing health and wellness issues. If you don't have a PCP, El Camino Hospital can help.

This article first appeared in the October 2014 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.