13 Conditions You Think You Have—but Probably Don’t
Health issues in the news can lead to incorrect self-diagnoses—and even a misdiagnosis by a doctor. Here's what you need to know to get the right information and the right treatment.
A spate of celebrities may swear otherwise, but gluten isn’t the devil. In fact, one recent study found that 86 percent of people who thought they had a gluten sensitivity—characterized by gastrointestinal issues like bloating, diarrhea, joint pain, fatigue, and “brain fog”—didn’t actually have one. Only around 6 percent of the population has a sensitivity to this protein found in wheat and many processed foods, while a very small 1 percent have celiac disease. So, if it’s not gluten, what is it? Some possibilities include lactose or fructose intolerance, an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, gastroparesis from diabetes, IBS, or another underlying health condition.
According to a study published in JAMA Network Open, while one in five people thinks they have a food allergy, only around one in 10 actually does. Instead, your symptoms—often gastrointestinal ones—may be the result of a food intolerance. While that may seem like semantics, it’s an important distinction: A food intolerance may lead to discomfort and problems like diarrhea and cramping, but a true food allergy could lead to hives, a swollen tongue and throat, trouble breathing, vomiting, chest pain, and, as a result, even death. Allergy testing can differentiate between the two, and you may need to carry an EpiPen for lifesaving treatment.
Testosterone levels decrease with age—dropping 1 percent each year after age 30—but if they go too low, men can experience weight gain, fatigue, low libido, erectile dysfunction, and mood swings. Of course, many other conditions can cause those symptoms as well. “Assuming you are not on medications which can cause [these] side effects, depression, diabetes, and sleep apnea all can either mimic the symptoms or cause a drop in testosterone,” says William N. Wang, MD, vice president and chief medical officer at Dignity Health’s Glendale Memorial Hospital and Health Center. “Adding testosterone to any of these other primary conditions can make your symptoms worse, not better.” Studies show that taking testosterone can also increase your risk of heart attack and blood clots, so you should proceed with caution and make sure the therapy is truly necessary. Check out these 10 diseases that could be cured in your lifetime.
Is your splitting headache actually a migraine? Probably not. “It is only really seen in about 12 percent of people,” says Amir H. Barzin, DO, UNC School of Medicine Assistant Professor, Family Medicine. “A migraine is usually associated with nausea and/or light or sound sensitivity and usually goes through stages.” Those stages include irritability, depression, or euphoria up to 48 hours before a migraine; seeing bright circles or hearing ringing in your ears; the throbbing headache itself; and subsequent exhaustion. Migraine or not, it’s a good idea to figure out what’s causing your headaches, especially if they’re recurring. Dr. Barzin suggests creating a headache log: “A patient can write down when they have their headaches, what they are doing, the foods they ate, any possible triggers (stress, loud noises, bright lights), how long the headache lasts, any treatments tried and the effectiveness of the treatments.”
Studies suggest that ADHD is overdiagnosed in children, and this can be a problem with adults as well. Characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, true ADHD often impacts work and relationships, according to WebMD, and a diagnosis requires the presence of multiple symptoms. “Depression is more common in the general population,” says Dr. Wang, “and its signs—such as chronic forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, lack of motivation, mood swings, low self-esteem, procrastination, substance abuse, and workplace issues—are also seen in adult ADHD.” He suggests seeing your doctor before jumping to any conclusions. Other possibilities for ADHD-like behavior can include anxiety, undetected seizures, thyroid problems, drug or alcohol use, and even sudden life changes. Don’t miss these health symptoms you should never ignore.
Chronic fatigue syndrome
If you’re tired all the time, it may feel like you have a chronic condition—but it’s probably not this one. Also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) affects between 836,000 and 2.5 million Americans, according to the CDC. Aside from experiencing exhaustion for at least six months, you would also likely have flu-like symptoms, brain fog, and unexplained muscle or joint pain—and you would feel worse after even mildly exerting yourself. So, what could your seemingly constant fatigue be attributed to? If it’s not your lifestyle—e.g. too little sleep, too much stress, or obesity—it could be a wide range of medical conditions, including a sleep disorder, a heart or lung problem, anemia, mononucleosis, lupus, or a mental-health issue.
If you’re a woman, you might be surprised to learn that vaginal itchiness and abnormal discharge don’t necessarily mean that you have a yeast infection. In fact, in one study, out of 150 patients who thought they had a yeast infection, only 26 percent actually did. An incorrect self-diagnosis can lead to you taking over-the-counter medications that you don’t need—and a problem that doesn’t go away. If you have the above symptoms, along with burning, redness, and swelling down below, you might instead have bacterial vaginosis, an STD like chlamydia or gonorrhea, inflammation, dry skin, or an allergy. The only way to be sure, especially if it’s your first time with this problem? See a doctor. Here are 15 silent signs your body is actually in big trouble.
If you’re one of the 1.5 million Americans with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in your joints, causing swelling and pain. But the more likely culprit for your joint pain is osteoarthritis, which affects 27 million people in the U.S. each year. How can you tell the difference? “Rheumatoid arthritis tends to involve the smaller joints of the body and [present] symmetrically, left and right,” says Dr. Wang, adding that multiple joints tend to be affected at the same time. “Osteoarthritis, which is wear and tear, tends to hit the joint with more use first.” An accurate diagnosis is essential since the primary method of treatment for RA involves medication. Other conditions that can be mistaken for RA, adds Dr. Wang, include lupus, gout, and psoriatic arthritis.
Does your doctor think that you have bipolar disorder because of your extreme mood and energy fluctuations—or is it because there’s a medication available to treat it? Some researchers believe the answer is the latter: A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggests that less than half of the people diagnosed with bipolar disorder should have been. This can be a problem since the medications used to treat it can increase the risk of developing high cholesterol and diabetes, among other health issues. Other conditions that exhibit bipolar-like symptoms include depression, anxiety, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, metabolic or brain disorders, and substance abuse. On the other hand, these are 11 disorders that doctors are most likely to miss.
If an ER doc or primary-care physician diagnoses you with chronic sinusitis, you’ll want to get a second opinion from an ENT. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, more than 99 percent of patients diagnosed with this condition by a non-ENT didn’t actually have it. While characterized by the same thick yellow or green mucus, facial pressure, and congestion you get with an acute sinus infection, chronic sinusitis lasts for more than three months, requires an endoscopy or CT scan to diagnose, and calls for different treatment, including a longer course of antibiotics and possibly oral steroids. Or, it may not be sinusitis at all: It could be a viral infection, an allergy or even a migraine or tension headache.
Acute bacterial sinusitis
You may have acute sinusitis—which affects 1 in 8 adults per year, according to Healthline—but there’s a good chance that you don’t have the type that requires antibiotics. “The vast majority of sinusitis, which is inflammation of the sinuses thus resulting in nasal discharge, face pain, and pressure, is viral in nature,” says Dana Neutze, MD, PhD, UNC School of Medicine Assistant Professor, Family Medicine. “We suspect it is bacterial only if symptoms have persisted for at least 10 days.” Until then, sinusitis can be treated with saline sprays and Neti pots, over-the-counter decongestants, humidifiers, and R&R. So don’t beg your doctor for a prescription. “Taking antibiotics for viral sinusitis does nothing for the condition,” adds Dr. Neutze, “but can cause diarrhea, a secondary infection [caused by a bacteria] called Clostridium difficile, or leads to resistance of bacteria to antibiotics in the future.” Don’t miss these 15 diseases you thought were gone—but aren’t.
Chronic kidney disease
While chronic kidney disease (CKD) may not cause any symptoms early on, you might get tested for it if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or a family history of kidney issues. Eventually, you may experience swelling in your legs, feet, and face, along with dry skin, increased or decreased urine production, nausea, and trouble concentrating. The issue with CKD is possible overdiagnosis, due to new guidelines that were designed for early intervention. According to the BMJ, many people’s condition never progresses to full-fledged, symptomatic kidney disease—meaning that they should never have had that early diagnosis to begin with. While not going into kidney failure is a good thing, the diagnosis itself may lead to unnecessary stress, tests, and treatments.
To be fair, you may actually have the flu: That’s the case for between 9.3 and 49 million people each year, according to CDC estimates. But there’s a good chance that you instead have a flu-like illness when you have symptoms such as a fever of 100ºF or more, plus a cough or sore throat. Whether or not it’s the actual flu can be determined with a nose swab at your doctor’s office. That’s important during the first 48 hours if you want an anti-viral like Tamiflu to ease your symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. If it’s not the flu, you could have parainfluenza, RSV, or simply a really bad cold. And a big FYI: No matter how hideous your symptoms are from a stomach bug, that’s not the flu—it’s a gastrointestinal infection. Make sure you look out for these 42 strange symptoms that can signal a serious disease.