Like so many of the other skills that we develop in adulthood — like figuring out how to do your own taxes, figuring out how to negotiate a raise, or figuring out how to turn off your smoke detector by stabbing at it with with a pen taped to a broom handle — figuring out when you absolutely need to see a doctor can be tricky. Some of us are of the belief that we do not need to see a doctor unless we are currently literally on fire, while others are inclined to head to the nearest urgent care facility if a dog sneezes on us on the bus. This is a free country, of course, and you are permitted to be as on fire or afraid of sneezing dogs as you wish — but habits like these can distract us from understanding which medical symptoms actually need a doctor's attention.
And with seemingly infinite tools to self-diagnose available online, it can be tempting to put off trips to the doctor, especially if your work schedule doesn't give you much time off or your health insurance co-pays are high. But as anyone who has ever used an online symptom diagnostic tool and then spent a long dark night of the soul convinced that they're about to die can tell you: there is no replacement for an actual living, breathing human being who has attended medical school and is not surrounded by pop-up ads for "one weird old trick for refinancing your mortgage".
So if you experience any of the five symptoms below, head to your actual doctor as soon as possible.
1. If You Suddenly Feel Very Weak
Feeling sudden weakness in your muscles is par for the course if you're, say, battling the flu. But a bout of muscle weakness that comes out of nowhere, with no other symptom or obvious cause, while you're just going about your daily business, is a situation in which you definitely want to hit up your doctor. Sudden muscle weakness is the sign of a number of health problems, from extreme food poisoning, food allergies, or pinched nerves, to anemia or multiple sclerosis — and in any of those cases, you'll be better off in a doctor's care, even if just turns out that you have a shellfish allergy you never knew about.
2. If You're Coughing Up Pink Or Bloody Phlegm
Though you may want to hit up a doctor any time you have unusually-colored phlegm, sinusitis or other respiratory infections (which typically lead to green or yellow mucus) don't always require medical intervention. However, pink or blood-tinged mucus is something to worry about.
Though most of us have had the occasional streak of blood in phlegm when we're battling a serious case of bronchitis and are consistently straining our throats to cough throughout the day, phlegm that has so much blood in it that it is tinged pink can be a sign of fluid in the lungs; lots of blood in your phlegm could also mean you're suffering from pneumonia, tuberculosis, or a variety of other respiratory nightmares. So if you find yourself coughing up blood consistently, or coughing up more blood than phlegm, haul it to the doctor's office. They won't be grossed out, I swear.
3. If You Have Blood In Your Urine Or Stool
Yeah, I know, I know — going to the doctor is awkward enough without bringing your pee and poop into it. But blood in your waste is never something to blow off (just ask anyone who forgot they ate beets for dinner last night and had a mild heart attack looking at the toilet this morning).
Blood in your urine can be a sign of a number of health problems, from a UTI or kidney stones to cancer and kidney disease. No matter your individual health specifics, there's no situation where "waiting to see if it goes away on its own" is the right call here.
Similarly, there's no "manageable" amount of blood that it is OK to have in your stool. While everyone occasionally gets a chapped butthole from wiping too hard or experiences a tear in the skin of your anus from pushing too hard or other causes, consistently finding blood in your stool or on your toilet paper for more than a day means that you should absolutely go see a doctor. Rectal bleeding (blood on the toilet paper or in the bowl) could be a sign of colon cancer or an ulcer in your rectal area; blood in your actual poop could be a sign of colon polyps, certain digestive diseases, or cancer (yes, colon cancer is rare among young people, but not unheard of — while colon cancer rates have been dropping in general, a recent study has found a slight rise in the number of colon cancer patients aged 20 to 34).
So deal with the embarrassment, bite the bullet, and talk to your doctor about what's going on in your underpants region — I mean, honestly, wouldn't you actually be lucky if talking to your doctor about your poop was the most embarrassing thing that happened to you all year?
4. If You're Bleeding But It's Not Time For Your Period
Though lots of us have fairly irregular menstrual cycles into our twenties, vaginal bleeding that is not part of your period is called "abnormal uterine bleeding," and you should absolutely see your doctor about it on the double, just to be sure it's not just normal spotting. Though sometimes this kind of bleeding can be caused by something as simple and harmless as switching to a new kind of hormonal birth control, it can also be a sign of an STI, an ectopic pregnancy, a miscarriage, or in rare cases, cancer of a reproductive organ.
So again, as embarrassing as it can feel to bring this stuff up to a doctor, you really need to do it — this isn't one you can reliably figure out for yourself. I mean, info online indicates that this could be caused by anything from uterine fibroids to cancer — wouldn't you like a professional to narrow that field a bit for you?
5. If You Have Sudden, Intense Headaches
Sudden headaches that come on out of nowhere, build in intensity over the first minute, and then typically die out over the next few hours don't sound like a huge problem on paper — with their relatively short duration, they might initially seem like a better deal than, say, a migraine.
But "thunderclap headaches," as these sudden painful headaches are called, aren't something you should see a doctor about simply because they're unpleasant (although there's that, too) — rather, they are often signs of very serious health problems. Thunderclap headaches can be tied to bleeding in the brain, brain tumors, blood clots in the brain, or brain-related infections like meningitis. Some people get thunderclap headaches for no real reason, and aren't in any danger health-wise — but only a doctor can make that call, especially because there are few external signs of bleeding in the brain that you'll be able to detect.
So don't risk it — just go to the doctor. If it turns out that you just had a chapped butthole, they won't make fun of you after you leave, I swear.
Want more women's health coverage? Check out Bustle's new podcast, Honestly Though, which tackles all the questions you're afraid to ask.
Images: Pexels, Giphy