Cheryl Lythgoe, Matron at Benenden Health, shares 10 good reasons to see your doctor, at a time when individuals may be reluctant to do so.
Some people fret about every niggle and twinge, while others like to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to seeing their GP, and it is often difficult to know when an ache, lump or bump warrants a check-up.
The coronavirus pandemic has only added further uncertainty to the equation, with many people either anxious about visiting their doctor or worried that they would be taking up capacity from those who need attention more urgently.
However, if you’re suffering from unexplained or concerning symptoms, it’s important to seek medical advice. Here are 10 symptoms that might pass you by but deserve your attention – and that of your doctor.
1. Weight loss
For those of us who carry a few extra pounds, life can feel like a never-ending treadmill of dieting and exercise.
To lose weight, your body must be burning up more energy than you are eating – and if you haven’t cut back on food or upped your exercise levels then something else must be causing it.
There are dozens of potential reasons: from digestive problems, to infection, to depression or anxiety. Unexplained weight loss can even be caused by an undiagnosed cancer, so always go to see a doctor if you start to shed pounds unexpectedly.
2. Nodding off at the drop of a hat
If you never feel refreshed, even after a good night’s sleep, or find yourself regularly dozing off in the daytime then you should see your GP.
In the UK, an estimated 750,000 people are unknowingly affected by a problem known as obstructive sleep apnoea – or OSA. The condition makes you feel perpetually exhausted and increases the risk of heart problems.
OSA isn’t the only condition to look out for, however. These symptoms could also indicate other conditions like anaemia or thyroid problems. Your GP can give you a blood test to check for this.
3. Chest pain
Countless TV dramas and films have taught us to instantly know that a character who grips their left arm, winces with crushing chest pain and collapses to the floor has just had a heart attack.
In real life it isn’t always this way and, conversely, sometimes even the most distressing of chest pains are harmless. When the heart is starved of oxygen due to a heart attack or angina, it typically feels dull and heavy; sometimes a bit like ‘an elephant sitting on your chest’.
It usually gets worse with exercise and stress, can move into either arm, and may be accompanied by sweating and/or breathlessness. Reach for the telephone if you feel these symptoms because a medic may need to give you a clot-busting drug to reverse the problem.
4. A persistent cough
The lungs are one of the most vulnerable parts of the body, and the immune system is forever working hard to clear out the gunk and germs we breathe in every day, especially in smokers.
Whilst a new, continuous cough can be a symptom of COVID-19, if this is not the cause, a cough that goes on for two weeks or brings up blood should always be assessed by a doctor. Smokers and ex-smokers need to be especially conscious of getting long-standing coughs checked out without delay.
5. Yellowing skin
What’s in our blood can sometimes show in our skin – vegetarians and those who love their greens tend to have an orange-ish hue to their complexion, but if someone notices that you are looking a bit yellow around the gills then visit your doctor.
When the liver isn’t working at full capacity, a banana-coloured substance called bilirubin accumulates in the blood, which shows up in the skin. It also makes the whites of your eyes look a bit golden.
Around 10 million people in the UK get headaches regularly, and nearly everyone suffers one at some point.
The most common – tension headaches – are fairly short-lived and are typically brought on by lack of sleep, stress, hunger, not drinking enough water or too much caffeine. They can be treated with paracetamol and/or ibuprofen.
A severe throbbing headache at the front or side of the head may be a migraine which, while not life-threatening, is deeply unpleasant and needs prompt medical attention if not previously diagnosed. A sudden, blinding headache always needs immediate attention.
7. A new or growing mole
Spending time outdoors in the summer is vital for getting a good dose of the bone-strengthening vitamin D, but too much sun has a darker side.
Excessive sunbathing and increased use of tanning salons has led to rates of malignant skin cancer (melanoma) sky-rocketing in recent years: six people now die of melanoma in the UK every day. If you catch a skin cancer early, however, it can be removed without any lasting harm.
Check yourself every few months for new moles or freckles – even in winter. Any mole that has got larger, is itchy or bleeds, has raggedy edges or is made of different shades of brown should be shown to a doctor.
8. Flashes and floaters
Everyone sees things that aren’t real sometimes. Look at a bright white wall or stare up at a blue, cloudless sky and you will probably be able to spot some odd black wispy blobs floating across your vision. These are perfectly harmless ‘floaters’, caused by tiny, near-transparent fragments of old tissue that have broken off from the back of the eye and are swimming around in the fluid inside the eyeball.
A sudden ‘shower’ of lots of floaters may be the first sign of a retinal detachment or a retinal tear, which means that the delicate, light-sensitive sheet of tissue at the back of the eye is starting to peel away.
Getting help quickly means an eye doctor can fix the problem by ‘gluing’ the retina back in place with a surgical procedure.
9. Altered bowel habit
At least one in five of us gets a tummy bug each year, and most cases settle down quickly without ill effects. If, however, you are regular as clockwork and notice that you are going more or less frequently than normal for more than a few weeks then your doctor will want to know about it.
For anyone aged over 60, current medical guidance states that any change in bowel habit warrants testing.
If stool is very dark or black, sticky, or contains blood, then it is even more important to get an appointment as soon as you can.
10. Back pain
Back pain is the bane of so many of our lives and is the number one cause of work absence but is rarely caused by anything serious.
Your GP or a physiotherapist can give advice on dealing with long-standing back pain, but there are some types of back pain that need swift medical advice. See a doctor as soon as possible for back pain that doesn’t improve with rest, is worse at night, or is accompanied by chest pain or fever.
Numbness or tingling around the groin or buttocks, losing control of your bladder or bowels or finding it difficult to urinate might mean the nerves at the very base of the spine have become trapped, and so require urgent attention.
This list of symptoms is not exhaustive and there are of course plenty of other reasons why you should see your doctor. If you notice any sudden changes in your body or health, be wary of investigating your concerns online as this is likely to bring up inaccurate information. Instead, make a GP’s appointment or call the NHS’s non-emergency line, 111.
If you’re a Benenden Health member you can also make use of its GP 24/7 Helpline from day one of membership.
For more information and to find out more about Benenden Health, go to https://www.benenden.co.uk/be-healthy/body/10-good-reasons-to-see-your-doctor.