7 signs and symptoms not to ignore

Take note of important signs and symptoms — from unexplained weight loss to sudden flashes of light — and know when to seek medical care.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Chest pain, sudden loss of vision or speech, and severe abdominal pain require immediate medical attention — but what about more subtle signs and symptoms? It can be tough to know what to do. Here's a list of seven signs and symptoms that merit attention.

1. Unexplained weight loss

Losing weight without trying might sound like a dream come true, but in reality it can signal a health problem. If you don't have a body mass index of 30 or higher (obesity) and you've lost more than 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms), or more than 5 percent of your body weight, during the past six to 12 months consult your doctor.

An unexplained drop in weight could be caused by various conditions — including overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), diabetes, depression, liver disease, cancer or disorders that interfere with how your body absorbs nutrients (malabsorption disorders).

2. Persistent or high fever

A fever isn't necessarily a cause for alarm. Fever seems to play a key role in fighting infection. Persistent fever can signal a hidden infection, which could be anything from a urinary tract infection to tuberculosis. In some cases, cancerous (malignant) conditions — such as lymphomas — cause prolonged or persistent fevers, as can some medications.

Call your doctor if your temperature is 103 F (39.4 C) or higher or you've had a fever for more than three days.

3. Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath could signal an underlying health problem. Very strenuous exercise, extreme temperatures, massive obesity and high altitude all can cause shortness of breath. Outside of these examples, shortness of breath is likely a sign of a medical problem. If you have unexplained shortness of breath, especially if it comes on suddenly and is severe, seek emergency medical care.

Causes for breathlessness might include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, a blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism), as well as other heart and lung problems. Difficulty breathing can also occur with a panic attack — a sudden episode of intense anxiety that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.

4. Unexplained changes in bowel habits

What's considered normal for bowel movements varies widely. Consult your doctor if you notice unusual or unexplained changes in what's normal for you, such as:

  • Bloody, black or tarry-colored stools
  • Persistent diarrhea or constipation
  • Unexplained urges to have a bowel movement

Changes in bowel habits could signal a bacterial infection — such as campylobacter or salmonella infection — or a viral or parasitic infection. Other possible causes include irritable bowel disease and colon cancer.

5. Confusion or personality changes

Seek medical attention if you have sudden:

  • Poor thinking skills
  • Difficulty focusing, sustaining or shifting attention
  • Behavior changes

These changes could be caused by many problems, including infection, poor nutrition, mental health conditions or medications.

6. Feeling full after eating very little

If you consistently feel full sooner than normal or after eating less than usual, get checked by your doctor. This feeling, known as early satiety, also might be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, bloating or weight loss. If so, be sure to tell your doctor about these signs and symptoms as well.

Possible causes of early satiety include gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as GERD, and peptic ulcers. In some cases, a more serious problem — such as pancreatic cancer — could be a factor.

7. Flashes of light

Bright spots or flashes of light sometimes indicate a migraine. In other cases, sudden flashes of light could signal retinal detachment. Immediate medical care can help prevent permanent vision loss.

Get the latest health information from Mayo Clinic’s experts.

Sign up for free, and stay up to date on research advancements, health tips and current health topics, like COVID-19, plus expertise on managing health.

To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.

April 02, 2020 See more In-depth

See also

  1. 3 ways to get closer to achieving your goals
  2. Make healthy habits stick
  3. 5 do's and don'ts for staying motivated
  4. 3 ways to avoid secondhand smoke
  5. Energy management
  6. After COVID-19 vaccination: Is it OK to visit with loved ones?
  7. Animal bites: Do you need a tetanus shot?
  8. Are you doing everything you can to stay healthy?
  9. Belching, intestinal gas, gas pains and bloating
  10. Bone health tips
  11. Can COVID-19 (coronavirus) spread through food, water, surfaces and pets?
  12. Cancer-prevention strategies
  13. Cellphones and cancer
  14. Colon cancer screening
  15. COVID-19: How can I protect myself?
  16. Plastic surgery
  17. Herd immunity and coronavirus
  18. Long-term effects of COVID-19
  19. COVID-19 (coronavirus) travel advice
  20. How well do face masks protect against coronavirus?
  21. Different COVID-19 vaccines
  22. Do adults need shots
  23. Don't save leftover pain pills
  24. Exercise: Check with your doctor
  25. Find meaning in the small things
  26. Flu Shot Prevents Heart Attack
  27. Overcome obstacles to your goals
  28. Healthy holiday habits: How to get back on track
  29. Hand drying
  30. Hand-washing tips
  31. Healthy habits that boost happiness
  32. Healthy heart for life: Avoiding heart disease
  33. Heart attack prevention: Should I avoid secondhand smoke?
  34. Home Health Hazards
  35. Brown fat
  36. How social support spurs you
  37. Break the busy cycle
  38. How to take your pulse
  39. How to take your temperature
  40. How well do you wash your hands?
  41. Injury Season for Snow Blowers
  42. Investing in yourself
  43. Is antibacterial soap a do or a don't?
  44. Keep the focus on your long-term vision
  45. Liposuction alternatives
  46. Lost in Space
  47. Making progress towards your goals
  48. Mammogram guidelines: What are they?
  49. Make over your mindset to make time for your health
  50. Mayo Clinic Minute: You're washing your hands all wrong
  51. Mayo Clinic Minute: How dirty are common surfaces?
  52. Measles vaccine: Can I get the measles if I've already been vaccinated?
  53. Medical family tree
  54. Infographic: Organ Donation Donate Life
  55. Infographic: Paired Donation Chain
  56. Infographic: Pancreas Kidney Transplant
  57. Personal health records
  58. Personalize your wellness journey
  59. Stick to healthy-eating goals at social gatherings
  60. Posture: Align yourself for good health
  61. Posture check: Do you stand up straight?
  62. New Year's resolutions
  63. Safe outdoor activities during the COVID-19 pandemic
  64. Secondhand smoke
  65. Creating a wellness vision
  66. Sitting risks: How harmful is too much sitting?
  67. Good posture tips
  68. Back exercises
  69. Proper lifting techniques
  70. Stop multitasking and focus
  71. Thirdhand smoke: What are the dangers?
  72. Want good health? Build a solid base
  73. The benefits of gratitude
  74. Video: Travel safely for medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic
  75. Travel Safety
  76. Triclosan
  77. Using if-then statements
  78. Vaccines for adults
  79. Fight coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission at home
  80. What are superbugs?
  81. What are superbugs and how can I protect myself from infection?
  82. Air purifiers and smoke