Know which health symptoms can be ignored—and which are signs of more serious issues like cancer


A nagging cough, a cut that won't heal, suddenly dropping five pounds-it can be tempting to write off such symptoms as nothing (or chalk them up to a winter cold or higher-than-usual stress levels). But recent research reveals that some symptoms deserve a closer look.

A whopping 98 percent of people with cancer warning symptoms (like the ones listed above) didn't think cancer could be causing their discomfort, in a recent study from the University College London. And while the study authors acknowledge that most people with a cough don't have cancer, some do-which makes early diagnosis and treatment key. (These 5 Health Issues Hit Women Differently than men.)

It's a fine line, notes lead researcher Katriina Whitaker, Ph.D.: On the one hand, you shouldn't be paranoid that every strange tic or symptom you notice is a sign of cancer. On the other, you should never worry that you're wasting your doctor's time by going to him with concerns. We asked Whitaker and other experts about the red flags that should send you to your M.D.'s office as soon as possible. Here's what they revealed:

The Study Author Says…

In her report, published in the journal PLOS One, Whitaker listed the 10 cancer "alarms" to watch out for: persistent cough, change in bowel habits, change in bladder habits, unexplained pain, unexplained lump, change in the appearance of a mole, a sore that doesn't heal, unexplained bleeding, unexplained weight loss, and difficulty smiling. The most troubling warning signs are ones that are persistent, says Whitaker. "If something has been around for a few weeks and isn't clearing up as usual, even if you're not worried, see a doctor, because the earlier they check these things out the better," she says. "If it's serious, the check-in could save your life. If it's not, at least you've got it cleared up."

The Breast Expert Says…

If you experience a symptom in both breasts at once, like discharge from both nipples or swelling on both sides, the trigger tends to be hormonal, reassures Marisa Weiss, M.D., founder of Symptoms that affect just one breast, on the other hand, have a higher risk of being cancer-related. Still, any time you notice an unusual change in your breasts-but especially if it appears in only one side-you should call your doctor or schedule a visit to get it checked out. (Read 6 Things You Don't Know About Breast Cancer.)

The Emergency Responder Says…

There are 12 symptoms that should send you to the ER, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians: difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, fainting or sudden dizziness, changes in vision, difficulty speaking, confusion or difficulty waking, sudden or severe pain, uncontrolled bleeding, severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea, coughing or vomiting blood, suicidal or homicidal urges, and unusual abdominal pain. But in addition to these, Leigh Vinocur, M.D., spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians, says to pay attention to your gut. "I often hear about people having this intuitive sense of something changing in them or something feeling off, and I always tell them to listen and get help," she explains. In this case, your body knows best. (Learn which other times you should Trust Your Gut.)