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What women's symptoms really mean

By Kimberly Holland, Health.com
There are some symptoms women experience that may need medical attention.
There are some symptoms women experience that may need medical attention.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dry, cracked lips could mean you have a yeast infection
  • Burning in the ball of your foot could mean you have Morton's neuroma
  • If your thighs are tingly, it may be time to get bigger jeans
  • Unexplained throat pain could be a sign of a heart attack
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(Health.com) -- If only your body were a little more honest, figuring out what's wrong when you don't feel right would be so much easier. But often a symptom -- maybe it's a sore back, cracked lips, tingling in your legs -- has an odd or unexpected explanation.

Here, the surprising secrets behind some common complaints, and expert advice on how to get the relief you're looking for. Plus, four symptoms you should never ignore.

Cracked lips?

It could mean: You have a yeast infection

Dry, cracked lips may be your body crying out for lip balm--or a sign of a yeast infection. "We all carry yeast on our skin," says Dr. Shawn Allen, a Boulder, Colorado, dermatologist, but cracks around the edges of your mouth may mean your body has too much.

What to do: Stop the growth

You lick your lips a lot when they're chapped because that makes them feel better. But warm, moist saliva just encourages yeast growth when it pools in the corners of your mouth. The right remedy starts with the real source of the problem: dehydration. So, drink lots of water.

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If your lips still crack, apply a moisturizing barrier like a beeswax balm or Vaseline. That should stop the pooling of saliva that encourages the yeast. Hydrocortisone cream or a topical antifungal medication may be helpful, too.

Shoulder or torso pain?

It could mean: You've developed gallstones

Severe chest pain screaming beneath the rib cage, a backache, shooting pains in the right shoulder--it sounds like a heart attack or a really bad case of heartburn. But maybe not. Gallbladder attacks can be mistaken for something else far from the source of the problem (to the right of your stomach). Your gallbladder stores bile that breaks down fats in foods when it's released into the intestine. And painful gallstones can form when the gallbladder doesn't empty properly into the gut.

Women are twice as likely to develop the problem thanks to excess estrogen; the hormone increases the concentration of cholesterol in the gallbladder and decreases the organ's ability to do its job. Some women try to treat the pain with acid-blocking drugs, which won't work because heartburn isn't the problem. "Acid has nothing to do with the gallbladder," says Dr. Joel Levine, professor of medicine in gastroenterology at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine.

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What to do: Change your diet

High-fat, high-cholesterol foods like red meat and French fries worsen the gallstones-and-cholesterol connection. What's more, "fat contracts the gallbladder more forcefully, so avoiding heavy-fat meals might reduce the chance of pain," Levine says. Try eating more low-fat, high-fiber foods, like beets, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes. And if you have unexplained shoulder or chest pain, especially after eating a fatty meal or at night, talk to your doc about gallstones. Remember, too, that being overweight increases the risks.

Neon-pink gums?

It could mean: You clench your teeth

Pale pink is a sign of healthy gums. But if they're bright pink, bordering on red, that's not good. It could signal damage beneath the gum line or long-term irritation and swelling. One surprising culprit? Teeth clenching. Beyond the bacteria and toxins from plaque and tartar that damage gum tissues and cause inflammation, teeth clenching (at night or when you're stressed during the day) puts lots of pressure on the gums, causing them to redden.

What to do: Try mouth guards

Believe it or not, for some patients dental mouth guards may do nearly as much for gum health as the proverbial brush-and-floss routine. Talk to your dentist about how to get the best fit. What else can you do? Give yoga a whirl. While there aren't any studies to show a direct correlation between yoga and teeth grinding, anything that reduces stress just might give your teeth a break.

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Burning in the ball of your foot?

It could mean: You've got Morton's neuroma

This thickening or enlargement of the nerves in your foot, usually between the third and fourth toes, feels a little like you're walking on a stone at first--but it may develop into a chronic jabbing pain if it's not treated. What's the culprit? Two common causes in women are high heels or high arches, says Marlene Reid, a podiatrist in Naperville, Illinois, and a spokeswoman for the American Podiatric Medical Association.

What to do: Get new shoes

"Foot pain is never normal," Reid says, so don't just grin and bear it. If it is a neuroma, which can be diagnosed with a physical exam and possibly an ultrasound or MRI, switch to shoes with a lower heel and a wider toe box. Arch supports can help take the pressure off the foot, but custom orthotics may be necessary down the road. Some doctors administer cortisone shots to reduce the swelling of nerve tissue. And in extreme cases patients may need surgery.

Tingly thighs?

It could mean: Your jeans are too tight

That tingle could be the result of the Skinny Jeans Syndrome--a compression of the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve, which runs across the outside of your thigh. High heels might make it worse because they throw the pelvis forward, compressing the nerve even more, says Dr. Michael Port, a pain-management specialist and medical director of the D.I.S.C. Sports and Spine Center in Marina del Rey, California.

What to do: Get bigger jeans

Stop wearing those tight pants and you'll be amazed how quickly the tingling ceases. If you have a few pounds to lose, dropping the weight may take the pressure off, too. If the pain continues, Port says, a steroid injection may help reduce the discomfort. Another option: Try "jeggings," comfy leggings disguised as skinny jeans; we like the Quinn Dark Striped Skinny Jegging by bebe ($109). A less-expensive choice is stretchy jeans with spandex, like the Silence & Noise Pull On Jean from Urban Outfitters ($58).

Four symptoms you should never ignore

Chances are you or a loved one will experience one of the following symptoms. Warning signs like shortness of breath or unexplained throat pain may seem minor but could be deadly. Call 911 for numbers 1 and 2; see a doc immediately for 3 and 4.

1. Fainting or shortness of breath: These may signal a clot in your lungs known as a pulmonary embolism (PE), a condition that leads to about 60,000 deaths per year. Keep in mind: Weight gain may increase your PE risks.

2. Unexplained throat pain: It could be a heart attack. Women often report jaw and throat discomfort, nausea, sweating, and unexplained fatigue before an attack, whereas classic symptoms like chest and arm pain are more common in men. Every year heart disease kills 16,000 American women younger than 55 and puts 40,000 in the hospital, according to the American Heart Association.

3. Unusual vaginal bleeding: Beyond normal menstrual flow or the spotting that comes with new contraceptives, bleeding you notice in your underwear or clothing can signal ectopic pregnancy, cervical inflammation, or even uterine cancer, says Dr. William Fuller, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Presbyterian/St. Lukes Medical Center in Denver, Colorado.

4. Persistent tummy trouble: If you have diarrhea, cramping, or rectal bleeding, don't wait weeks for it to vanish. Those symptoms could be signs of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's or ulcerative colitis), which increases the risk of colon cancer. Even ovarian cancer can appear first as chronic gastrointestinal issues like pressure, bloating, indigestion, and constipation.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011