50 Health Symptoms Women Should Never Ignore, According to Doctors
When it comes to your well-being, listen to what your body is trying to tell you.
As you get older, health issues are bound to pop up here and there. Usually, such things aren't too worrisome—an occasional headache here, a few random aches and pains there. But while some symptoms won't impact your well-being in the long-term, there are other signs of poor health that you should never ignore. After all, according to the latest 2021 data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 15.6 percent of all women in the United States are considered to be in fair or poor health. And conditions like migraines tend to affect women far more commonly than they do men, the Nation Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) says.
"Chronic and sometimes subtle symptoms can be the most important to pay attention to when it comes to protecting one's future health," says anti-inflammatory health coach Jenny Carr. "Sadly, these smoldering, persistent chronic health conditions affect more than 40 percent of the U.S. population." To help you avoid becoming a statistic, here are 50 signs to be aware of.
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You frequently find yourself short of breath.
Sometimes shortness of breath means nothing, and other times it's something you should get help for immediately. "Women may experience shortness of breath with exertion when their heart muscle isn't getting sufficient blood supply, and not have any chest discomfort at all," says cardiologist Barbara Roberts, MD. "In addition, women are more likely than men to have so-called 'silent heart attacks,' during which they may just have shortness of breath, nausea, or severe fatigue—not chest pain."
Or you commonly become short of breath for no apparent reason.
Shortness of breath happens. Sometimes it's because of taking the stairs instead of the elevator, but other times it could signal a health problem. According to the Mayo Clinic, unexplained shortness of breath could be due to multiple different issues, including bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, a blood clot in the lung, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. If you often get out of breath and aren't sure why, bring it up at your next appointment.
You always seem to be sick.
Always sick? You're not unlucky—your immune system is just struggling. According to Darcy McConnell, MD, common reasons why people tend to get sick more often are due to being too stressed out, not getting enough sleep, not eating right, not being active enough, not washing your hands, or having poor gut health.
Your hands and feet are always ice-cold.
Having ice-cold hands and feet that no oversized fuzzy blanket can fix could be a sign of health problems. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the worst case scenario is it could be a sign of peripheral artery disease, scleroderma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or an under-active thyroid. But it could also just be Raynaud's disease—a condition that's typically benign that affects blood flow to your fingers and toes. Check in with your doctor, just in case.
You have increased sensitivity to cold temperatures.
If you're always grabbing a sweater to warm up when everyone around you seems to be fine, your increased sensitivity to cold temperatures could be related to a problem with your thyroid, says Harvard Medical School. People with hypothyroidism can commonly be found wearing multiple layers of clothing because they always feel cold. Other symptoms to watch out for are fatigue, constipation, a puffy face, and depression, among others.
Or you have increased sensitivity to hot temperatures.
Plenty of people get really uncomfortable in hot temperatures. If you're never ever comfortable and often feel overheated, it could be due to having an overactive thyroid. According to Harvard Medical School, heat intolerance is a prime symptom of those with hyperthyroidism.
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You have a persistent fever.
Sometimes having a fever could be something minor, like your body fighting off a urinary tract infection. If you have a persistent fever, that's another story. The Mayo Clinic says it could be due to cancerous conditions, like lymphomas, so don't wait to get checked out by a medical professional.
You're losing your sense of smell.
Can't smell your freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies as well as you used to? According to Columbia University, one of the first signs of Alzheimer's disease is losing your sense of smell because the olfactory bulb—which processes smell sensations—is one of the first areas of the brain to be damaged.
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Your handwriting has gotten smaller.
If your handwriting has gotten super-small, it could be a symptom of Parkinson's disease. According to a 2017 study published in the journal Movement Disorders Clinical Practice, micrographia—or abnormally small letter size—is often one of the first symptoms Parkinson's patients notice.
You live a very sedentary lifestyle.
You might not think a lack of movement on the daily is that big of a deal. But, according to physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist Danielle Weis, PT, DPT, OCS, it's one of the biggest signs of poor health.
"A sedentary lifestyle is an indication of poor health, and it sets people up to remain in a cycle of poor health in the future," Weis says. "Someone who is sedentary and doesn't participate in any sort of exercise may go on to develop muscle/joint pain; joint wearing, stiffness, and tightness; poor endurance; poor biomechanics; difficulty with functional movements; and other issues."
You're sleeping horribly.
When you get a poor night's sleep, the entire next day is ruined. You're groggy, grumpy, and are basically counting down the hours until you can crawl back into bed. But the reason behind your lack of shut-eye could be more serious than you think.
"For most people, trouble sleeping is caused by lack of physical activity during the day or too much caffeine, but it can be a sign of a more concerning issue," says Nate Favini, MD, chief medical lead at primary care company Forward. "Depression, anxiety, and thyroid problems can all impact sleep. If you have trouble sleeping for a long period of time, discuss it with your doctor."
You're tired all the time.
There are a million things to blame for your tiredness. But if you're constantly drained no matter what you do, inflammation might be to blame.
"Symptoms become significantly more important to pay attention to over time as the inflammation builds and can turn into serious—or even life-threatening—conditions like cancer, dementia, and Parkinson's," says Carr.
Your memory problems interfere with your daily life.
Some forgetfulness as you age is normal. But if your memory problems are starting to interfere with your everyday life, that's when it's a problem. According to the Cleveland Clinic, forgetting where you put your glasses is a normal part of aging, what's not normal is forgetting what your glasses are used for. It could be a sign of mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
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Your chest hurts and your heartbeat is rapid.
If you're experiencing chest pain, a rapid heartbeat, pain in your arms, shoulders, or jaw, and/or shortness of breath, it could be due to spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD).
"SCAD—or spontaneous dissection of a coronary artery, the arteries that supply the heart muscle—is rare, can affect young people, and occurs more often in women than men," says Roberts. "Pregnancy-related SCAD is a rare but potentially fatal condition. It's estimated that 1 in 16,000 pregnancies is complicated by an acute heart attack and up to one-fourth of these are due to SCAD."
You have a swollen neck.
Does your neck feel a little swollen? Don't just write it off—especially if it's not due to something like a cold. According to Favini, it could be due to some serious health problems.
"The front of your neck is full of lymph nodes and your thyroid gland," he explains. "Swelling there can be a sign of infection, lymphoma, swelling of the thyroid, or masses within the thyroid gland. Lymph node swelling is common with a cold or sore throat, but if it persists or occurs when you're not sick, have it checked out by your doctor."
Your behavior suddenly changes.
Your friends might notice a change in your behavior or personality before you even do. If it comes about suddenly, the Mayo Clinic says it could be a sign of poor health, whether that's an infection, poor nutrition, a mental health condition, or the result of a medication you're taking.
You're suddenly experiencing blurred vision.
Your vision can blur as you age, but if you suddenly have trouble seeing or are experiencing blurred vision in one or both of your eyes, it could be a sign of a stroke, says the American Heart Association. Instead of seeing it if it goes away on its own, get medical attention immediately.
You're seeing flashes of light.
Migraines bring upon many strange symptoms, like seeing flashing lights and even colorful auras. One thing many people don't realize, though, is that it could also mean your retina has been torn or detached, says the American Academy of Ophthalmology. If the problem isn't resolved quickly, it could lead to blindness.
You're getting shorter.
If you recently checked your height only to find you're an inch shorter than you used to be, you're not going crazy—it's certainly a possibility. The National Institute on Aging says it could be due to osteoporosis, where your bones weaken over the years due to a lack of calcium and/or vitamin D, among other causes.
Your stress and anxiety levels are through the roof.
Everyone goes through higher periods of stress and anxiety, but you should do whatever you can to take care of it.
"All of us experience stress, but if you find that your levels of stress or anxiety are increasing or becoming difficult to bear, this can be more concerning," Favini says. "Make sure to take care of your mental health and seek help from your doctor or another professional if stress or anxiety is getting in the way of your day-to-day life."
Your sex drive has fallen off a cliff.
While your sex drive can change throughout the years, a lack thereof can also signal problems with your health. According to the Mayo Clinic, a low sex drive can indicate anxiety or depression, stress, bad lifestyle habits (like smoking, which can decrease blood flow and make you less aroused), fatigue and exhaustion, and health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, and neurological diseases.
The corners of your lips always crack.
Having the corners of your lips crack all the time can be incredibly painful. According to the journal Canadian Family Physician, the condition is called perleche, or angular cheilitis, and is often caused due to vitamin deficiencies—particularly B vitamins and a lack of iron.
You're bleeding after menopause.
Before menopause, having your period once a month was normal. If you're experiencing any bleeding after the fact, get it checked out immediately. "Bleeding after menopause is potentially very concerning and should be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible," says Favini. It could be caused by cancer of the uterus, cervix, or vagina, uterine fibroids, an infection of the uterine lining, or other issues.
You notice discharge from your chest.
Nipple discharge isn't just due to pregnancy or breast-feeding. It can also be from your birth control pills, injury to the breast, and endocrine disorders, among others. If you ever notice blood in your nipple discharge, head to the doctor: It's often a sign of breast cancer, says the Mayo Clinic.
You get a lot of yeast infections or UTIs.
Your frequent yeast infections and urinary tract infections could be due to diabetes. When you have high blood sugar levels, you're at a higher risk of both problems, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's why it's always important to bring any health issues up to your doctor.
You have a lot of belly fat.
It's far too easy to gain weight around your midsection, but for the sake of your health, you should do what you can to keep it off. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, women who had more belly fat had a 10 to 20 percent greater risk of having a heart attack than the women who didn't.
You have yellow bumps around your eyes.
Having yellow bumps show up around your eyes can be worrisome. Luckily, they're non-cancerous—but according to Harvard Medical School, they're a signal you might not be as healthy as you think you are. Called xanthelasma, the yellowish deposits of cholesterol pop up more often in women than men and are a sign of hyperlipidemia—a condition where there are high amounts of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood.
You have clubbed fingernails.
If the tips of your fingers look like the round part of an upside-down spoon, it could be due to nail clubbing. According to the Mayo Clinic, it's usually associated with diseases of the heart and lungs, but the most common cause of nail clubbing is lung cancer.
You get full after eating a small amount of food.
After eating an entire plate of food, feeling full is a given. But if you're experiencing that feeling after eating even a small amount of food, your body might be trying to tell you something. The Mayo Clinic says that early satiety could be due to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and peptic ulcers, or it could be a sign of something more serious like pancreatic cancer.
You're experiencing more hair loss than usual.
Losing more hair than normal can be a shocker. And, according to the Mayo Clinic, hair loss can also be caused by hormonal changes (from pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause), certain medications and supplements, and stress. Luckily, most cases aren't permanent—you might just need to speak with your doctor about ways you can help combat it.
Or you're experiencing an overgrowth of unwanted hair.
If you have an overgrowth of unwanted, male-pattern hair popping up on your chest, face, and back, it could be due to hirsutism, which is a sign of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). "PCOS is associated with an increased risk of diabetes [and] infertility," Roberts says. "If a woman notes irregular menstrual cycles, this is another sign that should cause her to seek medical attention."
Your period has been different than normal.
Your period might go through changes throughout your life, but there are certain things to look out for that could really affect your health.
"If your menstrual cycle is becoming longer than it was before, it may be a sign of hormonal changes. Most women experience menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, but if your cycle is changing earlier than this, it may be a sign of a condition like PCOS," says Favini. "PCOS is associated with insulin resistance and increases the risk of diabetes in the future. If you have bleeding between periods or heavier than usual bleeding, it's worth discussing with your doctor."
Or you're experiencing problems between your periods.
Experiencing abnormal bleeding or spotting between your periods is always worth bringing up to your doctor. According to the University of Michigan, it could be caused by PCOS, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of the pelvic organs, or certain medications.
If you're so sleepy during the day that you're literally falling asleep at your desk, or worse yet, in your car, it could be due to obstructive sleep apnea, where you continually start and stop breathing throughout the night and are snoring loudly. According to the National Sleep Foundation, allowing it to go untreated could lead to cardiovascular problems and weight gain.
You have chronic night sweats.
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night soaked in sweat? It might not be your comforter. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic night sweats can come about due to anxiety disorders, thyroid problems, and even certain types of cancer, so it's important to bring it up to a medical professional.
Your urine is darker than usual.
When your urine is fairly clear, you know you've been doing a good job with your water intake. If it's dark yellow, it's typically an indicator that you're not drinking enough to fuel your body. And changing your habits can better your overall health more than you think.
"Drink more water! Up to a gallon of water per day is one of the fastest ways to melt inflammation from the body, stabilize blood sugar levels, gain energy, and lubricate your joints," says Carr.
And it has an unusual odor.
Noticing a change in your urine odor could be an indicator that something's up with your health. While there are certain things that change the odor—like eating a lot of asparagus or taking B-6 supplements—the Cleveland Clinic says it could also be due to a bladder infection, a kidney infection, liver failure, and metabolic disorders.
You are always running to the bathroom.
Generally, having diarrhea means your body is trying to get rid of something it doesn't like. According to Penn Medicine, loose and watery stool often comes about from viruses, food intolerances, or bacteria or parasites that entered your body through your food or water. It can also come about due to certain diseases, like Crohn's disease, colon problems, or due to a medication you're taking. To get to the bottom of your loose stools, bring it up with your doctor.
Or you don't go to the bathroom very often.
If you can't remember the last time you went No. 2, you might have some serious constipation issues. According to Penn Medicine, if your stool is hard, dry, or painful to pass—and you only have three or fewer bowel movements a week—you could be experiencing constipation due to the medications you're taking, a low-fiber diet, being dehydrated, or a lack of exercise.
Your skin is looking a little blue.
Don't worry—you're not turning into a Smurf. The reason behind your lips, fingers, and/or toes having a blue tint could be due to cyanosis, a condition where your blood circulates abnormally and there's inadequate blood oxygen levels in your body, says the Texas Heart Institute. Get the issue checked out by your doctor as soon as possible since it could be a sign of coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Your wounds take a really long time to heal.
If your wounds take months to heal—or really don't ever fully heal at all—it could be due to diabetes. Having high blood sugar can mess with your body's circulation and cause nerve damage, and that can get in the way of your body being able to properly heal wounds, says the American Academy of Dermatology.
You notice an abnormal breast lump.
It might surprise you to learn that feeling any lumpiness throughout the breast is usually nothing to worry about. (Breast tissue naturally has a bumpy texture.) Still, there are certain symptoms that should always be brought up to your doctor.
"Most women notice changes in their breasts that go along with their menstrual cycle," Favini says. "But if you notice a lump that sticks around, that's growing, that feels fixed to your chest, that changes the size of your breast, or changes the appearance of the skin on the breast, seek medical attention. These may be signs of breast cancer."
You're losing weight without trying.
If you suddenly start seeing the number on the scale drop and you haven't been changing any diet or exercise habits, that unexplained weight loss could be signaling a health problem. The Mayo Clinic says losing more than 10 pounds, or more than 5 percent of your body weight, within six months to a year could be due to an overactive thyroid, diabetes, depression, liver disease, cancer, or other health issues.
You suddenly feel nauseous, dizzy, and/or tired.
Anytime you experience any combination of shortness of breath, nausea, chest or back pressure, dizziness, and extreme fatigue, Favini says you should take it very seriously.
"Women can certainly experience classical heart attack symptoms like severe chest pain, but they're also more likely to have a heart attack that has an atypical presentation," he says. "Women should look out for these symptoms and consider a heart attack as a possible cause, especially if they have risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, a history of smoking, or a family history of heart disease."
You have darkened skin in your armpits and neck.
If you've noticed that the skin in your armpits and neck have started to darken, it could be a sign of prediabetes, says the American Academy of Dermatology. Those dark patches are usually an indicator that there's too much insulin in your blood, and they typically feel velvety to the touch.
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You have a scaly growth on your skin.
If you notice a crusty, scaly growth anywhere on your body, it could be actinic keratosis (AK)—or a solar keratosis—which is caused by the exposure to harmful UV rays, says the Skin Cancer Foundation. While it's not cancerous yet, it can develop into skin cancer if you don't address it.
A mole has changed size, shape, or color.
It doesn't take much sun to change a mole for the worse. That's exactly why any physical changes in moles should be noted—especially if you have a history of tanning or not wearing sunscreen. According to Harvard Medical School, that means looking out for changes in the size, shape, or color of existing moles, as well as watching out for any new spots that may pop up. That way, if it is skin cancer, you can address it immediately.
You have reddish patches on your skin.
There are many reasons why you might notice reddish patches pop up on your skin, from an allergic reaction to eczema. One reason that can be a major indicator of poor health is type 2 diabetes. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, reddish patches that begin as small, raised solid bumps that look like pimples and end up hard and swollen could be necrobiosis lipoidica, a disease that's a common indicator of diabetes. The patches can also be yellow or brown and are commonly itchy and painful. Aside from diabetes, the disease is also associated with rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
You have a lot of skin tags.
Sometimes, skin tags pop up in areas like your neck, underarms, breasts, and groin due to carrying around some extra weight. But those little nuisances are an indicator of other health issues, too.
"They're related to chronic friction, which is why they're more common in overweight or obese persons," says Allyson Sorensen, PA-C, of University of Utah Health's Dermatology Services. "Higher levels of growth factors (like during pregnancy), insulin resistance (more common in people with diabetes), and possibly a genetic component also could all play a part as well."
You have hard, thickening skin.
If you have areas of your skin that are tight, waxy, and thick, it could be digital sclerosis—a condition that can develop in those with diabetes. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the symptom often appears on the fingers and/or toes—making it hard to move them—and it can spread onto your forearms, back, shoulders, face, and other areas of your body.