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Medical Chat: 5 Symptoms to take very seriously

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Words by Ricky Montalbano

We all get ailments, which (in turn) have symptoms. But many of these symptoms are vague and non-specific. And God forbid that you Google your symptoms, because you’re sure to read that you have some rare and deadly disease! So, of the vast array of symptoms, which indicate a serious condition?

Well, firstly, bear in mind that this article is by no means exhaustive, and that medical doctors do not rely solely on symptoms for a definitive diagnosis − they listen to the patient’s history, examine the patients for signs of various diseases and conduct a series of tests, in order to finally reach a diagnosis. At least we hope so, because (as my old ‘varsity Professor Allan used to say,) ‘Diseases don’t read books’. Nevertheless, there are certain symptoms that one should be wary of.

These are:

– Shortness of breath
– Chest pain
– Diarrhoea, with or without vomiting
– Neck stiffness with photophobia and headache
– Fainting (loss of consciousness) for no known reason

Shortness of breath

When one talks about shortness of breath, most people think of asthma as a main cause. However, there are many causes. For simplicity’s sake, let’s stick to asthma, or an acute (sudden) onset of shortness of breath. The most common cause is from the tiny (but not insignificant) muscles in the bronchi that squeeze the airways in the lungs. In addition, these airways may have copious amounts of mucous formed in them which further block the airways in the lungs. It can occur in a few seconds, or take a few hours, and may result in a sudden, severe shortness of breath.

Asthma is the number-one acute cause of death in children in affluent societies. Therefore, anyone who has a sudden onset of shortness of breath, whether he/ she is a known asthmatic or not, must be treated with extreme urgency. If you have sharp chest pain that gets worse when you breathe in and out, and if you have a cough and are breathless, consider pneumonia – infection of the lungs; and pleurisy − inflammation of the tissue surrounding the lungs; also usually an infection.

Mild cases of pneumonia can usually be treated with antibiotics, rest and fluids. For people with other health conditions, the condition can be severe and they may need to be treated in hospital. Treatment for pleurisy will depend on the underlying cause: pleurisy caused by a viral infection will often resolve itself without needing treatment, but pleurisy caused by a bacterial infection will usually need to be treated with antibiotics.

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