15 Scary Symptoms That Are Actually Harmless
Before you let "Dr. Google" convince you that your headache must be brain cancer, learn some of the many reassuring explanations for this and other common symptoms.
Take a deep breath
Whether it’s a new headache or back pain, weird eye issues or fatigue, when you have new symptoms, it’s easy to imagine that something serious must be going on. But before you panic and start thinking the worst, take a look at this list of symptoms that actually might have not-so-serious causes. As in any case, of course, see your doctor, if you’re worried.
“You say ‘chest pain’ and the first thing that pops in their mind, no matter what their age, is ‘heart attack,’” says Albert Ahn, MD, internist and clinical instructor of internal medicine at NYU Langone Health. But for younger patients, particularly those without any known cardiac risks such as diabetes, it’s probably something benign, he says. Most times, chest pain in young adults is related to heartburn, stress, or anxiety, he says, or you might have strained your chest wall muscles during exercise. Still, better safe than sorry. Talk to your doctor if you’ve been having sudden chest pain, especially if the pain doesn’t go away on its own. Here are more types of chest pain you could mistake for a heart attack.
Like chest pain, a fluttering heart doesn’t necessarily signal cardiac problems. The wild beating can feel scary, but triggers can include everything from stress and and dehydration to lack of sleep and too much caffeine, says Dr. Ahn. “That’s all of us on any given day,” he says. In that case, cutting back on coffee and avoiding workout or weight loss supplements (which often contain stimulants), and reducing stress with self-care might be enough to calm your heartbeat. Visit your doctor if palpitations become a pattern, or are paired with chest pain or shortness of breath, says Dr. Ahn. (This is what you should know about sinus arrhythmias.)
Ringing in the ears
That annoying ringing in your ears might just be a symptom of normal aging. When your arteries harden or you have high blood pressure, the blood flow may change and create noise that only you can hear, says Brunilda Nazario, MD, a board-certified internist and endocrinologist who is certified in advanced diabetes management. Most of the time, it’s nothing to worry about, but you should still get it checked out. “It’s generally not serious, but it could be a sign of hearing loss or damage to the middle ear,” she says. Learn more about when to worry about ringing in the ears.
Don’t self-diagnose yourself with Parkinson’s disease if you’ve noticed your hands tend to get shaky. Parkinson’s often starts on just one side of the body, and would be paired with stiffness, slow movement, and loss of coordination. It could be low blood sugar or a thyroid problem, or it could be an essential tremor, which is unsettling but benign. “With an essential tremor, you only notice it when you try to do stuff, like grabbing things,” says Dr. Ahn. Cutting down on caffeine or taking beta-blockers could keep you steadier, he says.
The older you get, the more you start to fear it may be sign of dementia when you forget a name or where you put your keys. Thankfully, you can rest easy knowing it’s totally normal to have some memory slips, and even younger people can sometimes experience memory issues when they’re stressed. “The time I tell people to be concerned is when you start forgetting major things or important things,” says Dr. Ahn. “They could be driving and suddenly forget how to get home, or meeting people and forgetting faces completely. Not words or names, but faces.” Unless your memory lapses have become dangerous, you can probably hold off on the cognitive testing just yet. But you should watch for these signs of forgetfulness that could actually be Alzheimer’s disease.
Not all skin growths are cancer. Skin tags are flesh-colored tabs of skin that generally crop up around the neck, chest, armpits, and eyes. Unlike suspicious moles, skin tags are totally harmless. “If there are one or two here or there, they are benign,” says Dr. Nazario. “If they haven’t changed, you can leave them alone. But you should still visit a dermatologist to get them removed if they’re bothering you or if you see a sudden explosion of them, she says. Here’s how dermatologists remove skin tags the right way.
It can be freaky to suddenly notice black floaters in your vision, but they don’t mean you’re on your way to vision problems. “They’re more age-related than anything,” says Dr. Ahn. “Most people will get them eventually, and if you focus hard enough, most people see them.” Talk to your eye doctor if you suddenly start seeing way more than usual or if they’re getting in the way of your vision, he says. If they do become a nuisance, these are the typical treatment options for eye floaters. However, if you have a sudden change or increase in floaters along with flashing lights or a shadow or gray curtain in your vision, it could be a sign of a detached retina or retinal tear, which is a medical emergency.
Unexpected blood might freak you out, but especially in younger patients, rectal bleeding is usually nothing serious, says Dr. Ahn. “Usually they have a low-fiber diet and are a little constipated,” he says. If it doesn’t go away after you start drinking more fluids and eating extra fiber, talk to your doctor. Learn 11 more things bowel movements can reveal about your health.
It’s disconcerting to feel your eyelid twitching on its own, but you can probably blame your lifestyle rather than a health condition. “We’re on computer screens or phone screens all day long,” says Dr. Ahn. “For a lot of people, that can cause eye strain.” Resist the twitch by resting your eyes throughout the day. If you can, log off email when you wrap up work, and find an evening activity that doesn’t involve screens, he says. If limiting screen time doesn’t help, the twitches could be a sign of neurological problems in rare cases.
Before you freak out that your birth control stopped working, keep in mind that there are a whole host of reasons you might skip a period. Your hormones are sensitive to physical and emotional stress, so things like anxiety or sudden weight loss can throw off your menstrual cycle, says Dr. Nazario. “One missed period is not a big deal generally,” she says, “but if it’s more than three, you should get evaluated.” If a pregnancy test comes out negative, your doctor will ask about other factors, including medications and hormonal symptoms, says Dr. Nazario. Check out these other 11 reasons you might have missed your period.
Sorry, Mom, but cracking your joints doesn’t cause arthritis—and clicky joints aren’t a symptom of the condition either. “Air develops within the joint and then collapses, and that’s the clicking sound you hear,” says Dr. Ahn. “It could also be the tendons rubbing against tight muscles.” A good, deep stretch or a warm compress could reduce the cracking if it’s bothering you, he says.
Lightheadedness after sitting
Feeling the world start to tilt is scary, but it’s not uncommon to get lightheaded after standing up if you have low blood pressure, says Dr. Ahn. “When the body changes position, it needs to maintain blood flow to the brain,” he says. “For some people, that can lag behind.” You might see stars while your body catches up, but as you remain standing still, the feeling should fade. Visit a doctor if you actually pass out, or if you don’t have a history of blacking out but suddenly start. (Here are some home remedies for dizziness you can try.)
People often jump to conclusions about their back pain, thinking they’ll need surgery for a herniated disc or worse. And visiting the doctor might only feed these worries. “When you start looking for stuff, you often find something abnormal with the spine,” says Dr. Ahn. But the culprit for most of us is likely something fairly innocent we all do too much of: sitting. Hunching over your computer all day puts stress on your back, so make sure you stand and stretch every so often to break the pattern and reduce the pain, says Dr. Ahn. Find out about 10 pain symptoms you should never ignore.
Fatigue can be a sign of a slew of conditions, from lupus to heart problems to sleep apnea. If something doesn’t feel right—especially if you have other symptoms to report—talk to your doctor about possible reasons you’ve been so exhausted. Just don’t be surprised if you come home with a prescription for an earlier bedtime. “We’re a 24/7 society, so sometimes fatigue is as simple as being burned out,” says Dr. Nazario. Here are some ways you can boost your energy naturally.
You know your body well, so if you suddenly start feeling headaches that you’re not used to, it’s tempting to rush to the doctor with fear of a brain tumor. Most of the time, headaches are not serious, even if they don’t go away right away, says Dr. Ahn. “Some people get a headache every day for a couple weeks, and it’s not normal but it’s benign,” he says. “Tension headaches can stay there for weeks at a time.” Mindfulness exercises and other stress-reducing therapies may help ease the pain, but you should always visit a doctor if your headache is unlike anything you’ve felt before or if the pain is “ten out of ten severe,” says Dr. Ahn. These are the signs your headache pain might be something more serious.
- Albert Ahn, MD, internist and clinical instructor of internal medicine at NYU Langone Health
- Brunilda Nazario, MD, a board-certified internist and endocrinologist who is certified in advanced diabetes management
- Cedars-Sinai: “Ask a Doc: Is Knuckle Cracking Bad?”