Doctor visits aren't cheap. If you don't have insurance or your plan has a high deductible, it can be tempting to "wait and see." But there are some symptoms you should never ignore.
Many severe illnesses start with seemingly minor symptoms, says family nurse practitioner Sheri Clark, who recommends seeing your doctor if you have swollen lymph nodes, which could be a sign of lymphoma or infection.
Many illnesses and injuries can be cared for perfectly adequately in your doctor's office or an urgent care facility. Sometimes, though, it's best to go straight to a hospital's emergency department. It might seem comforting to talk to your own doctor if you're very ill or in severe pain. However, doctors' offices aren't equipped to handle true emergencies, and you'll only delay treatment if you try to avoid the emergency room.
If you experience chest pain or heaviness, shortness of breath (especially if you can't complete a sentence), nausea, "heartburn" or abdominal pain combined with neck or arm discomfort, you should assume you're having a heart attack and get to the nearest hospital as soon as possible, says family nurse practitioner Sheri Clark.
Strokes also can be devastating, according to internist Travis McNeal. Symptoms include sudden confusion, slurred speech, facial drooping, loss of vision or loss of motion in one or more body parts. Lasting damage can be minimized by receiving appropriate treatment, but the window of opportunity is small. Severe headaches that start suddenly can mean an aneurysm, and can cause brain damage or death.
Whatever your symptoms, all our sources agree: You should never try to drive yourself to the ER. Have someone else take you or call an ambulance.
Women should also promptly report any breast lumps, Clark says, and "post-menopausal bleeding is considered cancer until proven otherwise."
Men, especially those older than 40, should report any difficulty urinating, says Clark. Enlarged prostates are common, but only a doctor can determine whether the swelling is dangerous, she says.
High fevers, over 100.4 F in adults or 103 F in kids, can mean infection, says Clark. She says that boils usually require lancing and treatment with antibiotics. Rashes that don't go away within a few days could mean an allergy, infection or autoimmune problem. Swollen joints can indicate lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. And headaches should be reported if you notice changes in frequency, severity or duration, she contends.
Dr. Travis McNeal, who practices internal medicine, says leg swelling can mean congestive heart failure. In pregnant women, puffy ankles are common, but swollen hands or face might indicate pre-eclampsia. Swelling of just one leg can be deep-vein thrombosis — a blood clot. "You're at increased risk if you smoke, use birth control pills or were recently immobilized by surgery or travel," he says.
McNeal also recommends seeing a doctor if you have frequent urination or burning. "A simple UTI (urinary tract infection) can become a dangerous kidney infection, and you'll end up in the hospital," he says. If the problem is related to a sexually transmitted disease, it can't be treated at home. Delaying treatment can mean complications like decreased fertility.
Endocrinologist Dr. John Gallen recommends a doctor visit if you experience two or more symptoms of diabetes: fatigue, weight loss, blurry vision, thirst and frequent urination. Untreated diabetes can be very dangerous, causing eye, kidney and nerve damage; increased risk of heart attack and stroke; even death.
But, "if you follow your doctor's instructions, eat a reasonable diet and take your medications as prescribed, diabetes can be controlled," Gallen says. Patients who have already been diagnosed should visit their doctor immediately if they have trouble keeping their blood sugar within the recommended range. He also recommends seeking treatment immediately for injuries or infections on your feet or legs because decreased circulation can slow healing and invite gangrene.
Some apparently insignificant injuries also can be dangerous if untreated, says McNeal. "Any injury involving the eye or hand needs a doctor's attention," he says.
Eye injuries that bleed or cause vision changes might require surgery. And all but the most superficial hand injuries require a doctor visit. "Hands are very complex, and deep cuts or burns can cause nerve or tendon damage and loss of motion or sensation. Quick treatment produces the best outcomes," says McNeal.
Burns that are white or black and don't hurt require immediate treatment. McNeal explains, "Some people think that if it doesn't hurt, it's not bad. But really, if you can't feel the burn, you've probably had some nerve damage."
Burns become infected very easily, as do human or animal bites that break the skin, McNeal says.
"Cat bites, especially, get bad fast," he continues.
Clark agrees, adding, "Any time you have a puncture wound and haven't had a recent tetanus shot, get to the doctor."
Even if seeing your physician puts a strain on your budget now, early treatment will save you money in the long run. Medical care is one area where it's better to be safe than sorry.