Act Fast! 7 Health Problems That Can’t Wait

These seemingly minor woes can take over your life. Don't let them.

By Stephen Fried from Reader's Digest | November 2010

5. Crushing Chest Pressure

Despite all the exhortations in recent years to take possible signs of heart attack seriously, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that 40 to 50 percent of those with symptoms still ignore them for up to six hours. Unfortunately, heart muscle begins to die within 30 minutes of the onset of an attack, according to interventional cardiologist David Fischman, MD, at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

Especially shocking: A recent study by researchers at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital found that half the women surveyed would not call 911 even if they thought they were having a heart attack.

Part of the problem is that people expect a heart attack to hurt, yet the most dangerous symptom is not pain but pressure, according to Dr. Fischman. “Sharp pain is more likely to be musculoskeletal—annoying but not dangerous,” he says. “What you have to be careful of is sudden chest discomfort that feels like someone is sitting on your chest.

The feeling of pressure can also radiate into your arms, back, and jaw. If moving around or pushing down on your chest makes it worse, it’s probably not a heart attack; if it’s the same when you move, you need to be evaluated immediately.” Women need to be especially careful, Dr. Fischman says: They’re less likely to feel chest pressure and more likely to have easily overlooked discomfort in the arm, back, or jaw. “It’s crucial that you be aware of your body. If the feeling isn’t the norm for you, get it checked out.”

What to do: Call your doctor immediately—or, better yet, make the call while you’re on the way to the emergency room. “And it couldn’t hurt,” says Dr. Fischman, “to pop an aspirin on the way.”

6. Abdominal Pain

The world is full of bellyaches and bellyaching, but there are some abdominal pains you shouldn’t ignore. They can be symptoms of appendicitis or other potentially life-threatening conditions.

What to do: Sharp stomach pains that worsen when you move or wake you from a sound sleep could signal a dangerous problem—appendicitis or even a gall bladder or colon crisis, says Lawrence R. Schiller, MD, of Baylor University Medical Center. If the pains are accompanied by fever, swelling, or tenderness; vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation; a change in the color of your urine; or a yellowing of your skin or the whites of your eyes, contact your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room. Do the same if you have sudden abdominal pain that radiates to your back or groin, especially if you feel light-headed.

7. Sudden Changes in Vision

According to Julia Haller, MD, ophthalmologist-in-chief at Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia, people may put off treatment for vision problems—as Steve Hart did when he experienced symptoms of a torn retina—because they’re tricked by the brain’s ability to compensate. “The brain readily shifts from one eye to the other,” she explains. “Many people will notice that things suddenly aren’t right with their vision, but because they are still seeing pretty well out of one eye, they don’t realize how bad the other one has become.” But sudden changes in vision can indicate a number of problems that require immediate treatment.

What to do: If you see flashing lights or floaters (which can look like dark spots, strands, threads, or webs), or if it seems like a curtain or shade is sliding over your field of vision—or if you suddenly just can’t see out of one eye—call an ophthalmologist immediately or get to the ER. While a retinal tear and a retinal detachment are among the more common conditions associated with these symptoms (especially in patients over 40), there are other possible causes that a specialist needs to rule out. Most can be treated relatively noninvasively if they are caught early: When a retina tears, there is a period of a few hours or a day during which it can be treated with a noninvasive laser technique. For a detachment, you’ll need surgery. “The longer the diagnosis is delayed,” says Dr. Haller, “the less chance you have of recovering your vision.”

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may be unable to drive yourself to the doctor or hospital. Dr. Haller says it’s okay to drive if you can see out of one eye—just don’t eat along the way. “It’s very possible you’ll need surgery,” she says. “And you can’t have it right after you’ve eaten.”

Stephen Fried is author of Appetite for America.