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5 Symptoms Never to Ignore

From incessant fatigue to unexplained weight loss, here are some reasons to call your doctor—now

"I simply don't have time to get sick," you mutter to yourself as you bolt out the door at 7 am to head to work. Maybe you've been feeling exhausted for weeks. Or you've had a constant, nagging backache. Or that swollen gland on your neck hasn't gone away. Whatever it is, you say it's nothing and convince yourself it will go away on its own. It's easy to play the wait-and-see game when you're preoccupied with so many other things. But when are simple aches and pains, lumps and bumps indicative of something more? Here are five seemingly minor symptoms you should never ignore.

SYMPTOM 1: Fatigue

What it might mean: It's easy to pass off fatigue as due to stress, not sleeping or burning the candle at both ends. But it could be due to a medical condition—anemia, an underactive thyroid, heart disease, depression or hepatitis. What to do: If you've suffered from fatigue for more than two weeks, make an appointment with your primary care physician to find out its cause and how to treat it.

SYMPTOM 2: Unexplained weight loss

What it might mean: Stepping on the scale to discover you've lost 10 pounds without even trying only sounds like a dream come true. If you haven't changed your eating habits and you've lost a noticeable amount of weight, it can be a serious red flag. The list of suspects includes cancer, diabetes and an overactive thyroid gland. What to do: Go to your doctor—this calls for a prompt investigation.

SYMPTOM 3: A neck lump

What it might mean: It might be something as simple as a sore throat. But it also might mean a hidden malignancy or the first signs of Hodgkin's disease. What to do: Make an appointment to see your physician if the lump is larger than 1-inch wide or has lasted more than two weeks. Your physician will determine if the lump is a discrete mass and may order a biopsy.

SYMPTOM 4: Seeing spots

What it might mean: If you're seeing specks or "floaters," they may be more than annoying. They could be symptoms of retinal detachment, and you should see an eye-care professional immediately. What can be done: Small tears can be treated with laser surgery, during which tiny burns are made around the hole to "weld" the retina back into place. Another option is cryopexy, which freezes the area around the hole and helps reattach the retina. These procedures are usually performed in the doctor's office. More complicated cases may require a hospital stay.

SYMPTOM 5: Fainting

What it might mean: If you've fainted or felt extremely dizzy after quickly standing up, you may suffer from far more than embarrassment. Called syncopy, it can be a symptom of internal hemorrhaging from an ulcer, high blood sugar levels for diabetics, severe dehydration, anemia or serious heart irregularities such as arrhythmias. What can be done: Your primary care physician may order a series of tests to check your blood sugar level and blood count and to monitor your heart.

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Last Updated 04/10/2009