Know the warning signs of serious illness.
By Dr. Mark Liponis, PARADE Magazine
When it comes to health, men often take better care of their cars or roofs than their own bodies. “If they spot a leak in their roof, they want to fix it before it damages the whole house,” says Dr. Jean Bonhomme of the Men’s Health Network. “The slightest funny noise in their car will send men to the garage. If they could only do that with their own bodies.”
In fact, a possible reason for men’s higher mortality from major illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes is their unwillingness to seek medical help as often as women do. Perhaps young men can get away with ignoring various aches and pains, but in middle age, these can be signs of something that might get worse over time.
Indeed, there are some symptoms that a man should always take seriously, whatever his age. If you have one or more of them, stop, think and call a doctor.
1. Chest pain
This is the holy grail of symptoms. If you feel as if an elephant is sitting on your chest, head for the nearest ER. (Call an ambulance or have somebody drive you.) Often, however, signs of a heart attack are less obvious, involving left-arm pain, jaw pain, sweating and shortness of breath. Chest pain that catches you after exertion, lasts a few minutes and then goes away could mean your heart is not getting enough blood (a condition called angina). Yes, sometimes chest pain is only heartburn, but why take a chance?
2. Shortness of breath
Being a little short of breath after running or a game of pickup basketball is not a big deal. But if you feel short of breath lying in bed at night, after walking a block or two or climbing one flight of stairs, you should see your doctor at once. These may be signs that your heart is getting weak—also called congestive heart failure.
3. Unintended weight loss
Many Americans are trying to lose weight. But what if you’re losing weight without even trying? If your pants are suddenly too loose, something else may be going on. It may be something relatively benign, like an overactive thyroid gland, but sometimes it’s the first hint of cancer.
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4. Blood in the urine or stool
True, some people don’t even want to look. But they should. The bottom line is: There shouldn’t be any blood in your urine or stool.
Urine travels from the kidneys to the bladder in special pipes called ureters, and then to the urethra before it leaves the body. Any disruption along the way from cysts, stones, infection or inflammation can introduce blood in the urine. So can cancer of the kidneys or bladder.
Blood in the stool may be trickier to see. If you see bright red blood, it’s a no- brainer. But sometimes blood in the stool may make your bowel movement look dark and tarry. Don’t assume it’s hemorrhoids. When there’s blood in the stool, colon cancer must be ruled out, usually by a colonoscopy. (Blood in the stool also can be related to a bleeding ulcer or a condition called diverticulitis.)
5. Changes in urination
Getting up too many times at night to visit the bathroom, a weak stream, having difficulty passing urine or getting urine started can all be signs of an enlarged prostate. The walnut-sized gland that surrounds the urethra grows as men age and can cause a common condition called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). It’s not life-threatening, but it can have a profound effect on quality of life. Identify it early, and you can prevent its progression. Prostate cancer—a life-threatening condition—has similar symptoms. A physical exam and a PSA blood test can often tell the difference between the two. Increased visits to the bathroom also can be a symptom of other conditions, including diabetes—a serious illness that may lead to heart and kidney disease.
6. Leg swelling
When fluid accumulates in your feet, ankles or legs, don’t ignore it. The swelling, also called edema, may be a warning of heart, kidney or liver disease. While there are medications (diuretics, or “water pills”) that can help reduce the swelling, it is critical to find the underlying cause: Is the heart not pumping effectively? Are the kidneys not filtering all the fluid they’re supposed to? Is the liver congested? A battery of tests is likely to reveal the reason and get you started on the right course of treatment.
7. Skin lesions that don’t go away
Many people ignore skin wounds, especially when they are not on the face. Skin ulcers, particularly on the legs and feet, that don’t heal after a few days should raise a red flag. They may be a tip-off that something is wrong with the circulation. Nonhealing wounds also can be the first clue of diabetes. A skin lesion anywhere on the body that doesn’t go away, becomes larger or changes color and shape can suggest skin cancer. Don’t brush it off. If caught early, the chances of a full recovery are great.