How to Know What Signs and Symptoms to Pay Attention To (and What To Do About Them)
Everyone has “off” days where they don’t feel as good as they would like. It is easy to be confused as to when you should start to worry that something might be wrong with your health.
Many of these signs and symptoms seem innocent enough that we may tend to ignore them. These signs and symptoms may be quiet, unlike signs and symptoms of things like a heart attack.
Here is a list of signs and symptoms you should pay attention to and seek medical attention. This list isn’t a complete list but a starting point for a conversation with your doctor.
Feeling more tired than usual
Difficulty sleeping at night or snoring
Unexplained weight loss
Changes in bowel habits
Shortness of breath (if this is new, has changed in frequency, or is worse, call 911 right away)
Changes in appetite
Sudden headaches or dizziness
Confusion or agitation
If we are listening, our bodies are generally good at letting us know when things are “off,” and we need to get medical attention. Listening to our bodies allows us to identify when we have a change in condition, i.e., when there are changes from our normal health status. Once we recognize a difference, then we can take action before someone has to take action for us.
As soon as you start having any of the signs and symptoms listed above, you should begin to keep a log of what you are experiencing.
Here are several essential things to write down in preparation for talking with your doctor.
History of symptoms: Let your doctor know if this is the first time you have experienced this particular symptom or if you have a history of this symptom. If this is not a new symptom and your doctor is unaware of the history, be prepared to talk about when it had occurred before, what treatment you received for it, and what was the outcome.
Start date of symptoms: When did you first notice the sign?
Duration of symptoms: If the signs come and go, keep a record of how long each episode lasts. For example, if you have had headaches, how long do they last each time? If symptoms have stopped completely, write down when they stopped.
Frequency of symptoms: How often do you have the symptom? If you are having trouble sleeping at night, you would want to write down how many nights each week, you can’t sleep.
What makes the symptoms better or worse: If you have found something that makes you feel better, such as sitting down when you have shortness of breath, jot this down. Alternatively, if you know what makes your symptoms worse, such as climbing stairs when you have shortness of breath, you will want to write them down too.
Description of your symptoms: Think about how to describe your symptoms best and use your own words. For example, if you feel like your head is going to explode, tell your doctor that. Here are additional things to think about. Do your symptoms come on fast or slow? If they involve pain, is the pain dull or sharp? Do you feel tingling, tightness, burning, queasiness, fogginess, sluggish, weighed down? Write down anything you can think of that would help your doctor better understand how you feel.
The impact of the symptoms on your life: Have the symptoms made it difficult to complete your normal activities? Have you missed work or social/recreational activities? Has your mood changed (feeling more down than usual, not wanting to leave the house, etc.)? This information is crucial for your doctor to know to develop the next steps for you.
Unless you are having a health emergency[i] and need to call 911, the best action to take if you have any of the above signs or symptoms is to call or schedule an appointment with your doctor.
When you call to schedule the appointment, make sure you tell the receptionist your specific symptoms and how long you have had them. If your symptoms have made it more difficult for you to complete daily tasks for yourself or your family, or have disrupted your work or recreational activities, you need to tell the receptionist these details also. If needed, ask to talk to the nurse to determine if your need to see the doctor is more urgent.
When you go to your appointment, make sure you take your log of everything you have written down with you and all of the medications, supplements, and herbal remedies you have been taking. When your doctor poses the standard question of “What brings you in today?” you will be prepared to give them complete details of what you have been experiencing. Your doctor will be in a better position to recommend the next steps to take to get you back to feeling healthy.
What to learn more about what you should share with your doctor? Watch this video from the National Institute on Aging.
[i] Some examples of signs that need immediate attention are: difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, slow or fast breathing, wheezing, heart palpitations, heart fluttering or skipping a beat, slow or fast heartbeat, coughing that won’t stop, choking, high or low body temperature, having seizures, excess vomiting. This is not an exhaustive list and if you have any concern you may be experiencing an emergency, call 911 immediately!
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