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Health Scares That Require "Immediate Action," Say Doctors

Learn what health scares you should see a doctor for, according to experts and ways to cope with a serious health issue. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

A health scare is defined as "a situation characterized by alarm or anxiety about the possibility of developing or being diagnosed with a particular illness or condition," and at some point in life most of us will have a health scare like we've been exposed to someone with COVID or we have signs of a serious health condition. Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, MBBS, Ph.D., a professor of public health at New Mexico State University tells us, "Health scares can be of various types and also be looked at in different ways. For example, we can categorize health scares that are related to the leading causes of death or consider what American College of Emergency Physicians suggest on medical emergencies."

The emotional effects of a health scare or diagnosis of a major health issue can be disruptive and devastating, but there are ways to cope with the distress.  According to Help Guide, "Whatever your situation, you should know that experiencing a wide range of difficult emotions is a normal response to a potentially life-changing situation. It doesn't mean that you're weak, going crazy, or won't be able to meet the health and emotional challenges that lie ahead," and stresses the importance of releasing your emotions. "When your feelings are freed, you'll find different emotions quickly come and go. Even the most painful and difficult feelings will rapidly subside. As you undergo treatment, you may hear, read, or see something that triggers a strong, unpleasant feeling. But if you allow yourself to feel what you feel, it won't last, and a different emotion will soon take its place."

The Mayo Clinic shares the following eight tips for coping with a health scare. 

-Get the facts about your health condition

-Express your feelings

-Set up a support network

-Focus on healthy habits

-Set realistic goals

-Concentrate on what brings you meaning and purpose

-Focus on your abilities, not limitations

-Use various coping strategies

The Mayo Clinic experts also suggest the following: 

  • -Practicing meditation or deep breathing exercises
  • -Writing in a journal
  • -Seeking professional mental health help
  • -Taking part in mentally stimulating activities, like reading or crossword puzzles
  • -Leaning on your faith or spirituality
  • -Remaining involved with work and leisure activities as much as you can

Adopting these healthy coping strategies can make your life more enjoyable and satisfying. Talk with your health care team if you have questions about your condition and what to expect before, during and after treatment."

Before jumping to any conclusion about your health, learning when to seek medical attention for certain symptoms is the first step and Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with experts who share warning signals to be aware of that require immediate assistance. As always, please consult with your physician for medical advice.  Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Chest Pain

Young woman in pajamas having heart attack in her bedroom (woman, pain, stroke, chest)

Dr. Khubchandani states, "Given that heart diseases are a leading cause of death nationally and globally, chest pain should be considered as a health scare requiring immediate action. More so, when the pain is persistent, worsening, or spreading to the face, jaw, shoulder, neck. Also, when chest pain gives a feeling of heaviness or pressure in the chest or upper abdomen, one should consider it as a potential warning sign for heart attack. As per the CDC, chest pain and these major symptoms may be accompanied by other symptoms (e.g. excessive sweating) during a heart attack."

Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies states, "While chest pain is often associated with heart-related problems, it can also be a symptom of other conditions. For example, chest pain can be a sign of indigestion or GERD, especially if the pain is accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or heartburn. Muscle strain or a pulled muscle can also cause chest pain, as can certain types of arthritis. In some cases, chest pain may be caused by anxiety or panic attacks. It is important to pay attention to any other symptoms that may be present along with the chest pain, as this can help to determine the cause. If the pain is accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, or dizziness, it may be a sign of a heart attack and should be treated as a medical emergency.

When most people think of chest pain, they automatically assume it is heart-related. And while that can certainly be the case, there are other potential causes of chest pain that should not be ignored. For example, aortic dissection is a condition that occurs when the inner layer of the aorta tears, causing blood to leak into the surrounding tissue. This can lead to severe obstruction of blood flow and, in some cases, death. Aortic dissection is often mistaken for a heart attack, as both conditions can cause similar symptoms, including chest pain. That's why it's so important to seek medical attention as soon as possible if you experience any type of chest pain. 

The most common symptom of a heart attack is  chest pain or discomfort. Most people describe it as an uncomfortable pressure, fullness, or squeezing sensation in the center of their chest. The pain may radiate to the neck, jaw, arms, back, or even the stomach. It is often described as a heavy or vice-like feeling. Shortness of breath, cold sweats, lightheadedness, and nausea are also common symptoms. It is important to remember that not all heart attacks cause chest pain. Some people experience only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. This is especially true for older people, women, and diabetics. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment can save your life. Only a professional can properly diagnose the cause of your symptoms and recommend the appropriate treatment. delaying care could literally be a matter of life or death."


Breathing Difficulty

Woman having chest pain and coughing while lying down on sofa at home.

Dr. Khubchandani emphasizes, "Sudden breathing difficulty, chest congestion, and gasping for breath should be considered an emergency with potential and serious underlying medical problems. Given that we have the ongoing scare with COVID-19 which has now become a leading cause of death, anyone having flu-like symptoms and progressive or worsening breathing difficulties should consider emergency medical help. Beyond COVID-19, breathing difficulties may also be a symptom of heart attacks, asthma attack, COPD, severe allergies, etc.  Often, sudden onset breathing difficulty is a part of a symptom constellation needing emergency medical help."

Dr. Mitchell explains, "Many people experience shortness of breath after strenuous exercise, or when starting a new exercise routine. This is perfectly normal and is caused by an increase in heart rate and lungs working harder to get oxygen to the muscles. However, dyspnea, or difficulty breathing, is something completely different. Dyspnea is a feeling of being unable to catch your breath or take a deep breath. It can be caused by a variety of things, including anxiety, heart disease, lung disease, and more. If you are experiencing dyspnea, it's important to see a doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.

Because dyspnea can be a sign of a serious medical emergency, it is important to seek immediate medical care if you experience difficulty breathing. Common causes of dyspnea include lung conditions such as asthma and COPD, heart problems such as arrhythmias and heart failure, and other conditions such as anxiety and anemia. In some cases, dyspnea may be caused by a combination of factors. Treatment for dyspnea depends on the underlying cause. For example, asthma may be treated with inhaled bronchodilators, while heart failure may require diuretics (aka water pills)  and a class of medications called ACE inhibitors. 

ACE inhibitors are a class of medications used to treat high blood pressure, heart failure, and other heart conditions. They work by blocking the action of angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE), a substance in the body that promotes constriction of blood vessels. By relaxing blood vessels and reducing the activity of ACE, ACE inhibitors can help improve blood flow and reduce congestion and fluid buildup in the lungs. This can help to relieve shortness of breath, a common symptom of heart failure. In addition, ACE inhibitors can also help to protect the kidneys and reduce the risk of stroke. As a result, they are an important part of treatment for many people with shortness of breath and other cardiovascular problems.

If you experience difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away. Early diagnosis and treatment can often improve your prognosis and quality of life."




"Bleeding that is uncontrollable and persistent and visible externally needs emergency medical help as a sign of serious injury," Dr. Khubchandani says.

"There can be accompanying deep wounds and cuts in such cases that need to be sutured or sealed. Common associated factors are household cuts (e.g. while cooking and cleaning), accidents, falls, etc.  

Other than injury, blood in vomit (hematemesis), urine (hematuria), or stool (hematochezia) also warrant medical help as soon as possible. Many serious abdominal problems may manifest as blood in urine, vomit, or stool due to obstructions, trauma, infection, or inflammation. Other symptoms may accompany such internal bleeding and may include dizziness, weakness, low blood pressure, passing out, body weakness, and headaches."


Severe Abdominal Pain, Discomfort, or Pressure

Young woman suffers, writhes in abdominal pain lying on couch in living room at home interior

 Dr. Khubchandani explains, "Not all types of pain or pressure in the abdomen are serious medical emergencies. Frequently, pain in the abdomen or stomach area can be short-lived due to benign reasons such as gas, constipation, indigestion, menstruation, or self-limiting food-borne illness. One may need to characterize their pain as localized versus widely spreading, cramping versus continuous; mild or severe, and sudden onset versus chronic. Abdominal pain may need urgent medical attention, especially if the pain does not subside and other symptoms also occur simultaneously (e.g. difficulty breathing, severe chest pain, high-grade fever, abdominal swelling, vomiting and nausea, severe diarrhea, etc.). The emergencies are ruptures, appendicitis, severe obstruction, injuries and trauma, or severe infections."

According to Dr. Mitchell, "Abdominal pain is a fairly common condition that can be caused by a variety of different factors. For most people, abdominal pain is benign and goes away on its own after a short period of time. However, there are some instances where abdominal pain can be a sign of something more serious.

There are many different causes of abdominal pain, and some of them require immediate medical attention. Here are four examples:

  1. Appendicitis: This is a potentially life-threatening condition in which the appendix becomes inflamed and fills with pus. Appendicitis typically causes sharp, localized pain that worsens over time. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, constipation, and fever. If left untreated, appendicitis can lead to a ruptured appendix, which can be fatal.
  2. Gallstones: These are small stones that form in the gallbladder and can cause severe pain if they become lodged in a duct. Symptoms of gallstone-related abdominal pain include sudden onset of intense pain, pain that radiates to the back or shoulder, and pain that is aggravated by eating fatty foods.
  3. Pancreatitis: This is a painful inflammation of the pancreas that can be caused by alcohol abuse, viral infections, or certain medications. Symptoms include upper abdominal pain that radiates to the back, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea. Pancreatitis can be life-threatening if not treated promptly.
  4. Stomach ulcers: These are open sores that develop on the lining of the stomach or small intestine. They are usually caused by bacterial infections or the use of certain medications (such as aspirin). Stomach ulcers can cause burning abdominal pain that is relieved by eating or taking antacids. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and fatigue.

Even if the cause of your abdominal pain is relatively harmless, it is always better to err on the side of caution and get checked out by a doctor."


Noticeable Changes in Brain function/ Brain Related Symptoms


Dr. Khubchandani tells us, "The brain is the most delicate, crucial, and sensitive organ needed for optimum body function. Any influence on brain structure or function due to injuries, internal bleeding, other body part diseases, lack of blood supply, abnormal blood pressure, etc. should be considered seriously and medical help should be sought as symptoms or signs appear or seem to worsen. For example, sudden dizziness, weakness, or change in vision may indicate low blood supply to the brain or a serious injury. Similarly, fainting or loss of consciousness may indicate a stroke or heart attack. In contrast, known history of accidents and injuries should raise suspicion about brain or spinal cord injury if these symptoms start appearing.  In other cases of emergencies, Change in mental status (such as unusual behavior, confusion, difficulty arousing) may indicate poisoning, intoxication, or psychiatric emergencies. Other sudden onset symptoms that need immediate medical attention are seizures, convulsions, paralysis or abnormal sensations in body parts, difficulty staying awake or focused, headaches, numbness of body parts, difficulty coordinating movement, sudden vision or smell or hearing loss, among the many."

Dr. Mitchell adds, "One sign that your noticeable changes in brain function are significant and require immediate health care attention is if you experience a sudden change in your ability to speak or understand others. If you find that you are suddenly struggling to follow conversations or express yourself, it is important to seek medical help right away. Another sign that something may be wrong is if you experience a sudden change in your level of consciousness. If you suddenly become confused or disoriented, pass out, or have a seizure, it is important to seek medical attention. Additionally, sudden changes in your vision or hearing can also be a sign that something is wrong and you should seek help. Finally, if you notice any changes in your emotions or behavior, such as feeling unusually agitated or confused, this could also be a sign of a problem and you should seek medical attention. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to see a doctor right away so that they can determine what is causing the problem and provide the appropriate treatment."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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