There are plenty of obvious signs of serious health issues that everyone knows—like arm numbness indicating a possible stroke, or chest pain being a telltale sign of a heart attack. And while it’s easy to assume that any serious condition comes with similar in-your-face symptoms, that’s just not always the case. In fact, many issues hide in plain sight via seemingly innocuous symptoms that we tend to write off as another inconvenient part of aging. To help you be safe as opposed to sorry, we’ve rounded up the subtle unexplained bodily changes that could indicate something bigger, and more serious, is at play.
1 Bad Breath
Bad breath is certainly unpleasant, but it’s often chalked up to having a little too much garlic at dinner or a reminder that we need to be more vigilant about oral hygiene. However, Dr. Rhonda Kalasho, a double-board-certified dentist in Los Angeles, California, says it can also be a sign of a serious health condition.
“Foul-smelling breath that doesn’t go away even after you brush and floss could be caused by things like diabetes, liver disease, and kidney disease,” Kalasho explains. “Be sure to visit your dentist to rule out any serious causes.”
2 Metal Taste in the Mouth
Here’s a scary statistic: 90 percent of adults with kidney disease don’t know they have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s because “symptoms of kidney disease can be subtle and easy to ignore,” says Dr. George Aronoff, MD, vice president of clinical affairs at DaVita Kidney Care, which has multiple locations throughout the U.S.
So what should you look out for as far as subtle symptoms go? “Ammonia breath or an ammonia or metal taste in [the] mouth,” according to Aronoff. He notes that waste build-up in the body can also cause changes in taste.
When the kidneys are working properly, they remove excess water from the body. But when they aren’t able to do their job, that fluid stays in your system with nowhere to go. “Fluid the kidneys can’t remove may stay in the tissues,” Aronoff explains, which is why another sign of kidney disease is swelling of the feet, ankles, hands, or face.
4 Frequent Urination
Constantly needing to use the bathroom is certainly an inconvenience, but it’s not something everyone feels the need to address with their doctor. However, they should, seeing as frequent urination could be a sign of diabetes, the seventh leading cause of death in America, the American Diabetes Association notes.
If left untreated, diabetes can lead to multiple organ issues including problems with nerves, kidneys, blood vessels, and infections. So if you have to pee more than normal, bring it up to your doctor before it’s too late.
5 Persistent Headaches
According to the World Health Organization, nearly half of adults experience headaches; so it’s no surprise that they’re able to hide in plain sight even when they’re a symptom of a more serious problem, like a stroke. According to 2015 research published in The Caspian Journal of Internal Medicine, persistent headaches—especially when they’re accompanied by vomiting, nausea, and visual changes—could be a warning sign that a stroke is imminent.
6 Panic Attacks
For reasons ranging from stigma to insurance red tape, 56 percent of Americans with a mental health condition such as panic attacks don’t receive treatment, according to Mental Health America. Not only is this dangerous to one’s mental wellness, it’s a potential physical risk as well, since panic attacks and other stress-related issues can actually be signs of heart problems.
“Although chest pain and a tightening sensation are the common and obvious symptoms of coronary artery disease, there can be less obvious symptoms,” explains Dr. Carolyn Dean, MD, a heart health specialist and author of The Magnesium Miracle. Among these less obvious symptoms are panic, anxiety, and stress, all of which can cause chest pain that you may not recognize as heart-related and therefore may not treat with urgency.
For women, the symptoms of a stroke are often subtle—and one of them is hiccups, according to cardiologist Dr. Stephen Sinatra, MD. Of course, there’s no need to panic about hiccups alone—but if you experience other symptoms such as facial pain, shortness of breath, nausea, and generalized weakness, it’s time to go to the doctor.
8 Double Vision
Dr. Christopher Zoumalan, MD, a board-certified oculoplastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, California, says newly onset double vision and a droopy eyelid “can sometimes be the [sign] of a brain aneurysm.” So if you’re seeing double, you should be evaluated immediately by a doctor.
9 A Stiff Neck
Neck pains and aches can be caused by the flu or other harmless viruses, but extreme neck pain should be taken seriously as it could be a sign of meningitis. This infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord can lead to neck pain that makes lowering your chin to your chest difficult or impossible, according to healthcare resource Merck Manuals. If it is meningitis, lack of treatment could lead to permanent neurological damage or even death, so be sure to not push off the pain.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of lung diseases that are difficult to detect early on. In fact, coughing—along with tightness in the chest and breathlessness—often develop before diagnosis, according to the COPD Foundation. If you begin to experience unexplained coughing that doesn’t go away, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
This symptom is frequently ignored by both doctors and patients, mainly because some people are just naturally prone to stumbles. But Dr. Anthony Kouri, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Toledo Medical Center, cautions that it can be a sign of something much worse: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. “ALS is a progressive nervous system disease that destroys motor neuron cells and leads to worsening disability and death,” Kouri says. “Early symptoms may include tripping or bumping into things, clumsiness or hand weakness, difficulty holding small objects, and muscle cramps or twitching.”
12 Redness on the Arms or Legs
If you notice pain or tenderness around a red area, typically on your leg or arm, Kouri says it’s worth visiting the doctor because this could be a sign of necrotizing fasciitis, a rare but deadly bacterial infection that attacks the skin, the fat beneath the skin, and the fascia overlying the muscle. “It may develop from a small cut, a surgical site, a bruise, a boil, an injection site, or from a small injury from a normal daily occurrence,” Kouri explains. “There are several conditions that have the same signs and symptoms as necrotizing fasciitis in the early stages. This is a very difficult diagnosis to make, even for experienced clinicians.” That said, if you have all the signs of this potentially fatal infection, be sure to mention it to your doctor.
No symptom hides in plain sight more effectively than fatigue. That’s why you need to trust your instincts when it comes to this symptom. If you consistently feel unrefreshed after getting eight hours of sleep or you’re so exhausted it’s nearly impossible to function, it could be a symptom of deadly illnesses like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.
14 “Frank’s Sign”
Although not everyone with Frank’s sign, a crease that appears on the earlobe, has a deadly illness, it’s certainly worth a visit to the doctor if you have one. This crease “correlates with coronary artery disease, peripheral vascular disease, and cerebrovascular disease,” says Dr. Edna Ma, MD, a board-certified anesthesiologist in Los Angeles, California.
We all get bloated once in a while, whether it’s due to a big meal before bed or every woman’s least favourite time of the month. But if you experience unexplained bloating on the regular, it could be a sign of colon, ovarian, stomach, and pancreatic cancers, according to Harvard Health.
16 Diarrhea or Constipation
Common digestive woes can also be a sign of colon cancer—and that’s one of the reasons why it’s such a life-threatening illness. “It’s one of the deadliest illnesses out there because its symptoms are so mild that when they diagnose it, it’s often too late,” explains Dr. Nikola Djordjevic, MD, a practicing physician in Bor, Serbia. If you begin having issues with your bowel movements or notice blood in your stools, make an appointment with your doctor just to be safe.
17 Unintentional Weight Loss
You haven’t changed your diet or exercise regimen, but your clothes feel loose and the number on the scale has dropped. It may feel like your lucky day, but unintentionally losing 10 or more pounds is cause for concern. According to The American Cancer Society, unexplained weight loss is one of the first signs of cancer—particularly cancers of the stomach, lung, esophagus, and pancreas.
18 Night Sweats
Night sweats have myriad causes, the majority of which aren’t life-threatening. But they can also be a sign of cancer, according to Dr. Jack Springer, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in New Hyde Park, New York. Specifically, The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute notes that night sweats can be a sign of lymphoma and leukemia, both of which require immediate treatment.
19 Bruising or Bleeding Easily
Some people naturally bruise more easily than others, but if you notice that you’ve suddenly begun to bruise like a peach, it could also be a sign of leukemia.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, leukemia patients get bruises from very minor bumps, plus they may bleed from their gums and noses. In the early stages of leukemia, there are often no obvious symptoms so it’s important to immediately see a doctor if any signs like these emerge.
20 Facial Puffiness
Puffiness in the face is fairly common, especially if you’ve recently consumed more salty foods and alcohol than usual. But if the swelling in your face doesn’t pass quickly or if it’s more pronounced than usual, it could be a sign of a tumor, according to 2017 research published in The National Journal of Maxillofacial Surgery. Because tumors can restrict blood flow, they can cause blood to pool in the face and result in facial puffiness.
21 Difficulty Swallowing
If you have a sore throat from a cold or strep throat, trouble swallowing is par for the course. But if you’re not sick, it could be a sign of esophageal cancer, according to The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine. And if this is your only symptom, don’t let it deter you from seeking medical attention; in the majority of cases, the more serious symptoms don’t emerge until the cancer has reached an advanced stage.
22 New Marks on the Skin
For those of us who frequently get freckles and moles, a new mark on the skin doesn’t always ring alarm bells. But Dr. Michelle Lee, MD, a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, California, warns that those marks could be melanoma, a rising cause of death.
“Signs of melanoma are the ABCD’s: asymmetric border; border edge isn’t smooth; colour is uneven; diameter is larger than a pencil eraser; and it’s evolving in size shape or texture,” Lee explains. “When caught early, melanomas are curable—but when caught late, they are the number one cause of death among skin cancers.” To avoid skin cancer, make sure you know these 14 Surprising Things That Make Sunburn Worse.
23 Frequent Heartburn
Heartburn is fairly common and not generally viewed as a serious health issue, but it can certainly be a sign of one. If you experience persistent heartburn, it could be a symptom of a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, according to The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. People with Barrett’s esophagus are at an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer, so it’s important to get your heartburn checked out by a professional. And for more helpful things to know about this worldwide killer, here are 30 Things You Had No Idea Could Cause Cancer.