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Scary symptoms that are (really!) no big deal

By Norine Dworkin-McDaniel,
Stay out of doctor's waiting rooms by realizing that many scary symptoms are actually harmless.
Stay out of doctor's waiting rooms by realizing that many scary symptoms are actually harmless.
  • Some symptoms are nothing more than signs of stress and fatigue
  • The majority of the time, a twitch, mark, or bump is harmless
  • Seek medical attention if you suspect a symptom is more than something minor

( -- Our bodies have an amazing capacity to freak us out.

Maybe it's a twitch that you're sure means multiple sclerosis. Or a little mark that must be cancer. You could Google symptoms for days -- and now your pulse is racing, so you can look that up, too. Unless you have a heart attack first... Whoa! Step away from the keyboard.

Most twitches, bumps, and pops are actually harmless. Here's when to see a doctor -- and when to just relax.

Skin tags

What's up with that? These floppy little nodules, which are usually flesh-toned but occasionally darker, typically develop in spots where skin rubs against skin or clothing, like under the arms, around the neck, under the breasts, or even on the eyelids.

It's not entirely clear why some people are more prone to them than others, although they may run in families. The good news is, they're virtually never cancerous and can be easily removed by a dermatologist.

See your doctor if... you find a growth that is hard, rough, or darker or redder than flesh-toned. It could be a wart, a form of keratosis, or possibly even skin cancer. Get flawless skin naturally

Red skin spots

What's up with that? Those little, round, bright-red spots and bumps on your skin (more common if your complexion is fair and you're over 40) are likely superficial blood vessels that haven't been reabsorbed into the skin.

"It's normal," says Dr. David Bank, M.D., director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic, and Laser Surgery in Mt. Kisco, New York. "The body naturally makes new blood vessels and takes others away. But as we age, more blood vessels are made than absorbed, and that's when we get these little red spots."

Technically, they're known as cherry hemangiomas or angiomas, and they're nothing to worry about, Bank confirms.

See your doctor if... you want to have them removed (a dermatologist can do this with laser treatments). But if you find a spot that's asymmetrical; is changing in size, shape, or color; begins itching or bleeding; or looks totally different from any other spot on your body, consult a dermatologist to make sure it's not cancerous. Is it a mole...or skin cancer?

Hand tremors

What's up with that? Shaky hands (especially after age 40) can be a family quirk. They can also be a sign that your blood sugar's dipping and you need a snack with some protein.

But very often they're simply a symptom of stress or anxiety, says Dr. Jill Grimes, M.D., a family practitioner in Austin, Texas.

This kind of shaking can get more pronounced if you're also drinking or eating anything containing caffeine, or if you're taking medication that contains stimulants (such as cold remedies or appetite suppressants) or some types of medications for attention deficit disorder or thyroid disease.

Benign tremors usually go away on their own once you've eaten or cut back on the stimulants, or when your stress has subsided.

See your doctor if... your tremors persist. She may prescribe a beta-blocker, a type of blood pressure medication that can steady your hands by blocking the stress response.

Shaking that affects only one hand, especially when you're not using it, could point to something more worrying, like Parkinson's disease. Shaky hands accompanied by weight loss, a racing heart, and a change in bowel habits often signal an overactive thyroid. 12 surprising sources of caffeine

Eye floaters

What's up with that? Inside your eyeball is a gel-like substance made up of water, collagen, and hyaluronic acid. Occasionally, especially as we age, pieces of collagen clump together, casting shadows on the retina that show up as dots, squiggly lines, or other odd shapes in your vision.

"A floater can be annoying, but it's harmless," says Elliott Myrowitz, O.D., M.P.H., chief of optometric services at the Wilmer Eye Institute and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

See your doctor if... a floater appears with light flashes or blurs or distorts your vision, which can mean that the gel in the eyeball is tugging on the retina. If the retina rips a bit as the gel tugs on it, Myrowitz says, "that could lead to a detached retina. The sooner such a rip is discovered, the easier it is to repair."

Eyelid twitches

What's up with that? Blame it on stress, fatigue, too much time spent staring at your computer, excess caffeine -- even alcohol. Alone or in combination, any of these can provoke muscle spasms in the upper or lower lids.

Twitches usually stop on their own, but if they're really bothersome, try warm compresses to relax the muscles, or artificial tears (because dry eye can also lead to twitching), Myrowitz says. Switching to decaf couldn't hurt, either.

See your doctor if... you have a twitch that lasts more than a few weeks, which may be a sign that the eye's surface or membrane is irritated. In rare cases, twitches may completely close your eyes or come with twitching in your mouth, too, in which case you should see your doctor to rule out a neurologic condition. Head-to-toe solutions for stress

Easy bruising

What's up with that? Some of us are just naturally prone to black-and-blue marks. But consider, too, how much aspirin, ibuprofen, or other NSAIDs you're taking. They inhibit blood clotting, which can make people bruise more easily, Bank says.

Another culprit: Father Time. Collagen protects our blood vessels from breaking and bleeding into the skin, which is what a bruise is.

"But by the time we reach our 40s and 50s, age and sun damage have weakened this shock absorber, so it takes less impact to get a bruise," Bank explains.

See your doctor if... unexplained bruises appear suddenly, which may be an early sign of a blood disorder such as leukemia (cancer of the blood-forming tissues). 8 steps to healthy skin at every age

Popping joints

What's up with that? "Sounds by themselves shouldn't be a problem," says Dr. Nathan Wei, M.D., director of The Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland. If you're in your 30s or 40s, most of the snapping and popping you may hear is likely the sound of ligaments or tendons sliding across the joints.

Even noisy knees and ankles are typically the result of wear and tear on the cartilage and soft tissues.

If the noises irk you, Wei recommends that you stretch regularly and, if osteoarthritis runs in your family, ask your doctor about glucosamine and chondroitin supplements to slow the deterioration of your cartilage.

See your doctor if... you have redness, swelling, pain, or reduced mobility along with popping joints; these can be signs of a ligament or tendon injury. Osteoarthritis could also be to blame, especially if you have a family history of it or if you're a runner who averages more than 30 miles a week: Research suggests this puts you at increased risk. If you're over 50, popping alone may be a sign of osteoarthritis. What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

Heart palpitations

What's up with that? Much of the time, occasional, fleeting palpitations are just a side effect of medication: Antihistamines, decongestants, antidepressants, and thyroid meds all can set your heart aflutter. So can stress and anxiety, especially if you're self-medicating with alcohol, cigarettes, or caffeine.

"Often, it's not so much the stress than what you're taking to cope with the stress," Grimes notes.

See your doctor if... you have any unusual heart symptoms, including palpitations.

"If you're having brand-new palpitations or experiencing them in patterns you've never noticed before -- especially along with other symptoms, like shortness of breath with exertion -- they could be signs of heart-valve disease or arrhythmias," Grimes says. "But the vast majority of the time they're nothing to worry about."

Copyright Health Magazine 2011