From blaming bloat on “that time of the month” to holding your relationship responsible for your blue mood, it’s easy—if not enticing—to attribute symptoms to just plain life and the vagaries of being female.
And while it’s true that our bodies (and brain chemistry) fluctuate throughout the month—to say nothing of the years—there are a number of health symptoms that a woman should never blow off.
Beyond seemingly obvious symptoms like irregular bleeding, chest pain and shortness of breath—all of which should be discussed with your doctor pronto—here are seven signs that something funky may be going on with your health:
1. Unexplained weight gain
For many women, few things can be as frustrating as inexplicable weight gain—especially if you’ve taken measures like diet and exercise to lose or maintain that number of scale. Vanity (and discomfort) aside, an unexplained rise in your weight, unrelated to the variations that occur before your period or with a new medication, could be an indication that it’s due time to schedule an appointment with your GP. Why? Medical conditions such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s syndrome may impact your ability to slide effortlessly into your clothes, while fluid retention, known as edema, may point to kidney disease or cardiac problems.
2. Changes in bathroom habits
Bloating, constipation, the runs—many of us experience a broad range of bowel habits, depending on where we are in our cycle, our diet and other circumstances. But unexpected changes—particularly recurring diarrhea and constipation, dark (or bloody) stools, and an increasing urge to go—should compel you to take note. As the Mayo Clinic reports, “Changes in bowel habits could signal a bacterial infection—such as campylobacter or salmonella infection—or a viral or parasitic infection.” Other possible causes, including colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, may be terrifying to think about but knowledge truly is power. In other words, schedule a doctor’s appointment asap if you experience any of these symptoms.
3. …and changes in your breasts
PMS, weight loss, menopause—all can engender changes in your breasts. According to the National Cancer Institute, a woman should seek counsel from her medical provider if shenotices a lump or firmness in the breast tissue or under the arm; changes in the size and shape of the breast; nipple discharge or changes (for example, an inverted nipple), and skin discoloration. True, a number of factors could be creating these alterations—from birth control pills to merely aging—but they could also signify a more serious issue.
Hormonal changes—and raising hormonal teenagers—can spur an achy head, and while this shouldn’t be ignored either, a sudden, acute headache (the sort that sends you doubling over in pain) may be a sign of a brain aneurysm. Sound petrifying—and impossible? Think again: More common in women than in men, up to 5 percernt of people who experience a brain aneurysm don’t even notice this arterial bulge (or ballooning) in the skull—as the Mayo Clinic reports, most brain aneurysms don’t “rupture, create health problems or cause symptoms.” (Indeed, such aneurysms are often only discovered during tests for other conditions.) But when a rupture is accompanied by a severe headache, as well as confusion, blurred vision, and nausea, your health may be at immediate risk, with potential complications ranging from brain damage to re-bleeding. Prompt medical attention in these cases is crucial.
5. Tingling/loss of feeling in hands and feet
It’s simple to discount tingling in the hands or toes (or a loss of feeling in the arms and legs) the result of a killer workout or falling asleep in the wrong position. But if you experience this unnerving sensation (no pun intended), something might be up with your nerve health, in that your extremities aren’t getting the flow of oxygen and blood they require. While usually benign, and quickly restored, WebMD affirms that chronic, episodic or severe tingling and loss of feeling can be a sign of issues ranging from diabetes or a repetitive stress injury (like carpal tunnel).
6. Pungent urine
While we may not give much thought to our pee, it too can be a telltale sign of what’s right in our body—and what’s wrong. Changes in its color and frequency can change, especially when we’re dehydrated, but strong, chemical-smelling urine should not be ignored, in that it may be a sign of a Urinary tract infection or vaginal infection.
A bad day (or week or month) at work, a relationship in peril, the 24-hour news cycle: there are countless causes for getting down (indeed, the sheer complexity of life can create apathy, angst and sorrow). But if you persistently feel ambivalent—that flat zone between happy and unhappy—are snapping at your spouse for no specific reason, find yourself drinking alcohol or speeding with greater frequency, have a constant case of brain fog, or are uninterested in doing things you once enjoyed, you may need to speak up—and to someone.
Depression is twice as likely to strike women than men (thank genetics, biology, and sociocultural expectations for the discrepancy), yet many believe that if they aren’t sobbing on the sofa by nightfall every day—and have otherwise maintained a busy life—they aren’t “technically” depressed. A number of causes could be behind your blue mood—you may be lacking a key nutrient or two, for example—but you won’t know until you’ve taken the first step by seeing a professional. You have a life to savor, so why wait?