Sometimes, however, it is the combination of seemingly benign symptoms that is enough to raise red flags in doctors' minds. You may wonder why, when you tell your doctor about your screaming headache, he or she asks you about vomiting, fevers, your eyes, and your home heating system. They are doing this for a very specific reason. When certain symptoms occur together, different diagnoses may pop to the top (or bottom) of the list of possibilities in your doctor's mind.
This thought process can be seen at play for those diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning. Individuals exposed to the gas often present with a staggering variety of seemingly vague symptoms, including headache, vomiting and abdominal pain. As a result, affected individuals can easily be misdiagnosed with a viral illness or food poisoning.
Dr. Eric Lavonas, associate director of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, says he becomes suspicious when he sees flu-like symptoms either in multiple family members or in patients without fever. He and other doctors are able to make the right diagnosis by recognizing the combination of symptoms, as well as asking the right questions.
To further complicate the issue, people often present "atypically," meaning that the symptoms they experience may be different than the textbook example.
"There is the classic misconception of the 'Hollywood heart attack,'" says Dr. Christopher Cannon, cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. The stereotypical heart attack, he says, stems from what people see in the movies -- a middle aged man suddenly clutches at his chest, complains of agonizing pain, then slumps to the floor.
However, most people with heart attacks actually describe a diffuse pressure or squeezing. Says Cannon, "A real heart attack is very subtle."
Indeed, atypical presentations are often the ones that often stump doctors. When even those of us who have spent years learning to sniff out the atypical and esoteric get fooled, how can we expect the general population not to be fooled sometimes, as well?
Dr. Jesse Pines, an emergency medicine physician, advises that patients look to their primary physician for guidance on symptoms they should pay attention to, given their specific medical history and risk profile. "Because each patient's situation is different, they should look to their regular [health care] providers for guidance on which symptoms should prompt seeking urgent medical care," he advises.
Of course, good preventive and primary care is the best way to avoid the emergency room altogether. O'Brien emphasizes that regular primary care visits are part of the solution. Furthermore, he says, "Pay close attention to your body and make a serious effort to keep any medical problems you have under control."
This list is not exhaustive, nor should it take the place of a doctor's evaluation; it is purely meant to highlight some important symptoms that shouldn't be ignored. As usual, it is best to consult with your own doctor, and seek medical attention if you are concerned.
1. Chest Pain
Discomfort that feels like squeezing, pressure, or heaviness;
Pain and sweating, nausea, or a feeling of dread;
Difficulty breathing ;
Any change in the pattern or frequency of your "normal" pain;
Pain or pressure that gets worse with exertion and improves with rest;