When Ordinary Symptoms Turn Serious

These five common health problems can sometimes signal a medical emergency. Should you head to the ER? Here's how to tell.
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Symptom: Headache

Every year we read about people who ignored what seemed like a minor problem -- an "achy flu" or "just a headache" -- then wound up in the hospital. When actress Sharon Stone went to the emergency room because of a splitting headache, doctors found bleeding on the brain in time for her to make a complete recovery. Sadly, singer Laura Branigan never got that far. After a bad headache that lasted two weeks, she died in her sleep of a brain aneurysm in 2004.

So how do you know when a symptom that seems minor actually signals that something is seriously wrong? By paying attention to the company it keeps. An upset stomach may simply be the result of something you ate. But if you have one more than a couple of times a month, along with certain other symptoms, alarm bells should go off. A headache is usually just a headache, and an over-the-counter pain reliever generally takes care of it. But when pain is sudden and severe -- or lasts longer than three days -- get emergency help, says Lori Heim, MD, president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Don't worry that you might be overreacting; if it turns out you're wrong, that's a good thing. The tragedy would be waiting too long and losing valuable time that could save your health -- or your life. To protect yourself and your family, learn the signs that could mean you've reached the tipping point for each of these five problems.

Symptom: Headache

Normal causes include tension, fatigue, hunger, caffeine withdrawal or spending time in a hot, stuffy room. These headaches are bothersome but not dangerous.

When to get help: You suddenly develop a persistent, extremely painful headache on one side of your head that feels different from prior headaches. This may be temporal arteritis, an inflammation that can be cured with corticosteroids. Left untreated, it can progress to blindness. If the headache is sudden and severe with no known cause, you may be having a stroke or a brain aneurysm. Call 911 now. if you have a combination of headache, fever, and stiff neck, you may have viral or bacterial meningitis. Go to the emergency room. Viral meningitis gets better on its own in about a week, but bacterial meningitis can cause permanent brain damage or death if it's not diagnosed and treated early. In addition, if you get an aura -- a short-lived sensory disturbance that causes visual effects or tingling -- or if the headache affects only one side of your head, makes you nauseated or lasts much of the day, check with your doctor to see if you're having a migraine. Migraines aren't always an emergency, but your doctor may be able to treat them.

Continued on page 2:  Symptom: Indigestion


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