SYMPTOMS THAT ARE SCARY BUT NOT SERIOUS
A few months ago, a worried middle-aged accountant made an emergency visit to my office. He had passed a black stool earlier that day and was sure he was bleeding internally. He feared he had colon cancer. A digital rectal exam revealed a black stool all right, but the test for blood was negative. The culprit turned out to be bismuth subsalicylate—Pepto-Bismol—which he had taken the previous night for an upset stomach. His stool color was back to normal the next day.
Pepto-Bismol is not the only cause of needless worry about abnormally colored stools. A generous serving of beets, for example, which impart a dark red color to feces, can also be troubling to the unsuspecting. Iron supplements, too, can blacken the stool.
ASSUME THE BEST
Passing a discolored stool is just one example of an apparent symptom that can be alarming yet medically insignificant. Here are a few common conditions that send patients running to the doctor when all that’s needed is minimal attention or simple reassurance.
• Red-eye special. Subconjunctival hemorrhage sounds horrendous and looks even worse. One eye suddenly becomes blood-red due to a leaky blood vessel in the conjunctiva, the delicate transparent membrane that covers the white of the eye. That can be caused by just about any effort that temporarily increases pressure in the head—coughing, sneezing, bending over; lifting weights, or straining during a bowel movement or orgasm.
Despite its appearance, subconjunctival hemorrhage is painless and harmless, and it doesn’t even interfere with vision. The blood is slowly reabsorbed and disappears over the next few weeks.
• Yellowed skin. You might be upset if you noticed that your skin had turned orangy yellow. Could it be jaundice, the result of excess bile in the blood due to hepatitis or some other disease? If the whites of your eyes aren’t turning yellow, too, the skin discoloration, called carotenemia, just means you’ve been eating lots of carrots or else taking supplements containing beta-carotene.
Carotenemia is the medical term for increased blood levels of the pigment carotene, a vitamin-A precursor found mainly in fruits and vegetables, especially carrots and sweet potatoes. The excess carotene is deposited in the skin, where it imparts that distinctive hue. High blood levels of carotene are harmless; enzymes in the body limit that nutrient’s conversion to vitamin A so the vitamin won’t reach toxic levels. If you don’t like the color; cut down on the carrots or supplements. Your skin color will return to normal after a few weeks.
• “Sighing” respirations, a type of abnormal breathing, often causes great anxiety. Ironically, the condition is caused by underlying anxiety in the first place. Although it can be worrisome to the sufferer; the problem has nothing to do with the lungs.
Typically, the patient complains of a frustrated effort to inhale deeply. It’s as if you had been interrupted halfway through a yawn. The distressing sensation may occur several times an hour. But tests of pulmonary function and breathing rhythm will detect nothing abnormal.
Since sighing respirations thrive on anxiety, they often subside once the patient has been reassured that there’s no medical problem. If they don’t go away, the underlying anxiety should be treated.
• Low blood pressure. Patients sometimes seek advice because they’re worried that their blood pressure is too low. They may have tried out a relative’s home monitor or had their pressure tested at the local supermarket. In fact, many perfectly healthy people—especially short, slim women—have systolic readings (the “upper” number) of less than 100 mm Hg, well below the usual “optimal” level of 120 mm Hg. So long as you’re feeling fine and don’t get lightheaded when you get up from lying or sitting down, your “low blood pressure” is no cause for concern. On the contrary, it’s good for the cardiovascular system, since it puts less stress on the blood vessels.
• Painful breastbone. I often see patients who are troubled by this mysterious symptom, especially during the summer months or after they return from a tropical vacation in the winter. Out of nowhere, it seems, a painful lump develops at the lower end of the breastbone. Actually, the “lump” is just the normal cartilage that’s suddenly noticeable only because it’s sore. The victim has invariably been lying belly down for long relaxing hours on the sand. The sensitivity subsides within a few days if they avoid that prone position.
IGNORANCE IS NOT BLISS
With his discolored stool traced to the Pepto-Bismol, my patient felt immensely relieved, if a bit sheepish—especially since the product label clearly warns about that probable side effect.
Still, it’s a good idea at least to call your doctor the first time unusual signs or symptoms develop. But don’t assume the worst. Often, reassurance is the only treatment that’s needed. And your new understanding could spare you needless worry in the future.
Health handbook introducing you to read the article: SUBTLE SYMPTOMS THAT SIGNAL DANGER
Copyright ownership rights: The Best of Health – Consumer Reports