Most of us perform at least a little bit of due diligence to maintain our health. We watch what we eat, we exercise, we see a doctor once a year, and we monitor ourselves and our bodies for abnormalities and ominous signs. You can absolutely take that too far, and tip over the edge over into hypochondria. But you can also do the opposite, and ignore the little signs that might indicate a larger problem with your body.
No one wants to waste a trip to the emergency room or go to a doctor more than absolutely necessary, so ignoring changes in our health and hoping they just go away on their own is a common reaction, unless those changes are major and alarming. But not all signs of declining health are big and bold — some are downright subtle, and easy to ignore or miss entirely.
The things listed here aren’t necessarily signs that you’re in serious trouble, and you should always check with your physician before jumping to any conclusions. But if you notice any of these changes, it’s a good idea to at least talk to a doctor about them and make sure it’s nothing serious.
Unusually persistent bad breath
Bad breath occasionally happens to the best of us. A spicy meal, a lazy toothbrushing session, a long night out at the bar — just about everyone has had the embarrassing realisation that their breath stinks. It’s normally not a reason to worry, but if it starts happening all the time, it could be a sign of gum disease, diabetes, or even stomach cancer. It’s worth a telehealth check-in with your doctor to rule those things out.
Swollen hands or feet
While the occasional bout of swelling in your extremities — called edema — could be caused by too much salt or alcohol, if you’re suddenly dealing with swollen hands or feet all the time it could indicate that your heart and circulatory system aren’t doing so hot, or that you’re dealing with undiagnosed liver, kidney, or thyroid conditions. If you’re experiencing it a lot and changes to your lifestyle (like cutting out salt and booze) doesn’t help, get thee to a doctor.
Nonstop peeing and constant thirst
If you’ve become increasingly thirsty and are also urinating more or less nonstop, you might not be simply dehydrated — you might have diabetes. A side effect of the disease is way too much sugar in your blood, which causes your body to try to flush it out through your kidneys. If you’ve become little more than a conduit for processed water, it’s time for a checkup.
A persistent cough
We cough for a lot of reasons, and the occasional day where you can’t seem to shake yours is probably nothing. But if you’re coughing a lot, all the time, and have been for a while now, it could be an indication of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), mesothelioma, or a lingering case of COVID-19. This is especially worrying if you also feel tightness in your chest or have other problems breathing — but even a dry, annoying cough that won’t go away shouldn’t be ignored.
Some people can operate on what appears to be a series of catnaps while others need fifteen hours of sleep a day or they feel logy. As long as you feel rested and ready to go when you wake up, the amount of sleep you get probably isn’t an immediate concern. If you always feel tired — to the point of being unable to concentrate or even function — despite getting lots of rest, that’s not just “sleep debt,” that’s a potential alarm bell that could indicate something like sleep apnea, chronic fatigue syndrome, or even heart disease.
A crease on your ear
This is the very definition of subtle for those of us without medical training: If you have a diagonal crease on your ear lobe, it could be what’s called Frank’s Sign (named after Dr. Sanders T. Frank, who first observed it). This weird little detail on your ear is harmless in and of itself — but it is strongly correlated with coronary artery disease and other disorders. If your doctor hasn’t noticed it yet, point it out, because you might need to be monitored a bit more closely.
Changes in bowel movements
As the good book says, everybody poops. And we all poop in different ways, at different times, and with different consistencies. While your faeces can tell you a lot about your health in general, most of us don’t think too much about this biological necessity unless something changes. While occasional bouts of diarrhoea or constipation strike everyone, most of us are pretty steady in our pooping experience. If suddenly you aren’t, pay attention — if either becomes the new normal, it could be a sign of colon cancer or other problems. And if you see blood in your stool and its source isn’t immediately obvious (say, a hemorrhoid), see your doctor ASAP.
Sudden weight gain — or loss
A lot of us struggle with our weight, and weight will naturally fluctuate over time — gaining and losing a few pounds over the course of a year or even a few months doesn’t mean anything. Sudden weight changes are unusual, however. It’s easy to assume a sudden drop is the result of an accidentally healthier diet, or a sudden spike the result of a lazy few weeks filled with pizza and naps, but if your weight changes continue, it could be a sign of a larger health issue.
Bruises are a fact of life, and they become more common as we get older. Usually we know exactly why we suddenly have a bruise, but if you start to notice bruises appearing out of nowhere, or if you get bruises that don’t fade normally, it could be a sign of an infection or even the early stages of leukemia, which often first presents without any noticeable symptoms.
We put our hair through a lot. Whatever your gender, lifestyle, or age, we expect our hair to suffer hats, product, frequent washing, and endlessly styling without complaint. Sometimes our hair does, in fact, complain, resulting in split ends and other problems. But if you notice that your hair is brittle, breaks easily, and/or falls out easily, without a styling-related reason, it could be a sign of a nutrient deficiency. That might be easily correctable with a better diet or supplements, but if left unchecked it could have some serious consequences.
Ridges on your nails
Look at your fingernails. Are there raised ridges on them? White lines? Do they break easily? There’s a chance this indicates a serious health problem, although it’s more likely a nutrient deficiency — you might need more iron, zinc, vitamin A, or something else. Check with your doctor to rule out anything serious, then look into overhauling your diet.
Bleeding after brushing
It’s amazing how many people brush their teeth, see some blood in the sink, and then go merrily on their way. Blood outside the body is never a good sign, though you might see some bleeding if you brush particularly hard or if you just had your teeth cleaned at the dentist earlier in the day. But if you start seeing blood every time you brush, be concerned. It could be a sign of periodontal disease — which can develop into a life-threatening infection if left untreated.
A lot of people snore. And a lot of people suffer through their nightly performances in grim silence. But when we realise that we snore we tend to seek treatment for the symptom — nose plugs, elevated pillows, separate bedrooms, divorce — instead of asking ourselves why we’re snoring. And the answer could be serious: Snoring is associated with heart disease, and usually means you’re also experiencing sleep apnea, which means you stop breathing for as long as a minute multiple times every night. Time to get that checked out.
Men don’t like to talk about erectile dysfunction, but it happens to a lot of them. Many times, ED has a psychological component, and it’s also often rooted in exhaustion, but it’s a mistake to assume it’s a temporary problem that a good night’s sleep or a vacation — or a little blue pill — can cure. ED could be a sign of developing heart disease, as a weakened heart simply can’t pump the blood necessary for an erection.
If your eyes aren’t producing enough tears, they get dried out. It’s an uncomfortable sensation that can be temporarily soothed with topical treatments like eye drops. The occasional dry eye could be due to environmental conditions or a late night out, but if it’s a chronic experience it could indicate a hepatitis C infection. It’s actually a very common symptom in people dealing with the disease.
Got a minor injury that just won’t heal? Most of the time a wound that won’t heal or that takes a long time to resolve is a sign of bad circulation — your body’s not getting enough blood to the skin. That in turn is usually a bad sign for you in general — it could be caused by a wide range of things, including diabetes or heart failure. If you have a wound that won’t heal after several weeks, consult your doctor to see what’s going on.