Should I see a doctor? - 10 important signs and symptoms
Some people are forever fretting about every niggle and twinge, while others like to bury their heads in the sand.
When should I go see a doctor?
It's difficult to know when an ache, lump or bump warrants a check-up. No one teaches you at school when a symptom should set the alarm bells ringing. Often, these symptoms have simple explanations and are easily treatable, but you should speak to a professional to make sure. If you monitor your typical health and wellbeing, it can help you to spot important symptoms early.
What symptoms should you see your doctor for?
Here are 10 symptoms that might pass you by, but sometimes deserve your attention and you may need to see a doctor about. Our physical health is very important and you should recognise when to see a doctor.
1. Weight loss
For those of us who carry a few extra pounds, life can feel like a never-ending treadmill of eating healthy and exercise. Suddenly dropping a clothes size without any effort may sound like a dream come true, but certainly shouldn’t be accepted as a gift from the gods.
To lose weight, your body must be burning up more energy (a calorie is a measure of a unit of 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 be caused by an undiagnosed cancer, so always go to see a doctor if you start to shed pounds unexpectedly.
2. Tired all the time
If you never feel refreshed, even after a good night’s sleep, or find yourself regularly dozing off in the daytime then you need to see a doctor.
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, increases the risk of heart problems and puts you at risk of falling asleep behind the wheel - it is the cause of around 40,000 road traffic accidents in the UK every year.
OSA tends to affect people who snore at night, who are overweight and/or have a big neck, and it is due to the muscles in the throat not being strong enough to keep the windpipe open during deep sleep.
OSA sufferers momentarily wake up with a splutter several times a night, but because the episodes are so short-lived they don’t remember them.
The mind and body are never fully rejuvenated from sleep and it puts a huge strain on the body’s internal workings. Fortunately, lifestyle changes or a ‘CPAP’ sleeping mask can cure the problem. Plus, a good kip might just make the world seem a nicer place.
OSA isn't the only condition to look out for. 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 lead us to recognise 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.
Sadly, most people put off calling for help. These life-saving drugs work best in the first hour – so every minute counts.
4. 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 pollution and germs we breathe in every day, especially in smokers.
Coughs come and go, but a cough that won’t shift should not be passed off as normal. A chronic cough is defined by The National Institute of excellence as a cough that persists for longer than 8 weeks.
A dry, tickly cough may be caused by a reaction to blood pressure lowering drugs, acid from the stomach or mild asthma. 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
If you, or a loved one, has noticed your skin is yellowing, speak to your doctor. You could have jaundice.
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. There are several conditions that could cause this to happen, and some are serious.
If you do have jaundice, you may also have other symptoms like yellow eyes, itchy skin, darker pee and paler poo than usual.
Around 10 million people in the UK get headaches regularly, and nearly everyone suffers one at some point.
The most common – tension headaches – are short-lived, feel like a tight band around the head, 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.
Other headaches to be aware of are those that follow a serious head injury, gradually get worse over many days, don’t go away, or are exacerbated by lying down, coughing or sneezing. A sudden, blinding headache always needs immediate attention and you should go to the doctor.
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. A poll of nearly 2,000 British holidaymakers revealed that 88% got sunburnt on their last trip, which significantly increases the risk of skin cancer.
Excessive sunbathing and increased use of tanning salons has led to rates of malignant skin cancer (melanoma) skyrocketing 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. Look carefully on parts of the body that are exposed to the sun (gentlemen: don’t forget the bald spot and ears - frequently missed). Any spots that don't heal and 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 there 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
No one likes to think about what goes down the toilet bowl, but you should try to steal a glance whenever you can stomach it.
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 family doctor will want to know about it.
For anyone aged over 60, current medical guidance states that any ‘change in bowel habit’ warrants testing.
In the past 40 years, deaths from bowel cancer have dropped by 40% – thanks in part to both the public and doctors taking greater heed of toilet routines. If stool is very dark or black, 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 a top cause of work absence. The human back seems to be ill-equipped to cope with 21st century life and backaches are rarely caused by anything serious. Aches and pains usually get better with time and helped by avoiding strenuous exercises, staying active and stretching.
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.
How Benenden Health can help
This list of symptoms is not exhaustive. 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 - see our Dr Google article for more information. Instead, make a GP’s appointment or call the NHS’s non-emergency line, 111.
Benenden Health provides affordable private healthcare for everyone, giving you access to services such as our 24/7 GP Helpline and Mental Health Helpline straight away. Once you’ve been a member for six months you can request access to diagnostic consultations and tests, and if needed, treatment and surgery.
You'll also have access to a wealth of health and wellbeing articles, videos and advice on a range of health issues.
Medically reviewed by Llinos Connolly in December 2022. Next review date: December 2023.