8 Subtle Signs You Need To See A Doctor Urgently

When it comes to health, not everything should be ignored. Here are some warning signs that you might need to see a doctor urgently.

Having worked in a hospital before, I have realized that one major reason why people succumb to certain ailments is failure to show up to the hospital until the disease has gotten to very advanced stages. They don’t understand the subtle signs that herald that it’s time to see a doctor. Other factors may also contribute to the delay in seeking a doctor’s attention, including poor health-seeking behaviour attributed to poverty and the perception of inconvenience in accessing a standard health facility.[1]FACTORS INFLUENCING HEALTH-SEEKING BEHAVIOUR AMONG CIVIL SERVANTS IN IBADAN, NIGERIA – PMC (nih.gov)

Knowing the subtle signs that you need to see the doctor is very important in preventing any disease from causing severe complications and even death. Delay in seeing the doctor or visiting the health facility is commonest among low-socioeconomic countries[2]Mothers’ healthcare-seeking behavior and associated factors for common childhood illnesses in Ethiopia: A systematic review and meta-analysis – Yoseph Merkeb Alamneh, Melese Getachew, Aytenew … Continue reading but it is present in some degrees in all countries of the world. Because of these, the concept of healthcare delays has been seriously talked about in recent times.

The reasons why you need to see the doctor are now quite obvious, however, it is important you know how to interpret ominous signs that you need to see a doctor immediately. As you read on, you will see these subtle signs that you have to visit the hospital now.

Subtle signs you need to see the doctor urgently

Signs you need to see a doctor
Doctor consulting with a patient. iStockphotos

1. Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Shortness of breath or difficulty with breathing can be a sign of an underlying respiratory or cardiac condition that needs to be evaluated immediately. Conditions like asthma, COPD, or foreign body aspiration into the airway can cause shortness of breath. Shortness of breath almost always indicates a serious medical problem, especially if you did not carry out any physical activity significant enough to cause it.

For someone who is a known hypertensive patient, has pneumonia, any other lung infections, or other chronic medical conditions, shortness of breath could signal that urgent medical attention is sought without delay.

COVID-19 also had difficulty breathing as a symptom. So, difficulty in breathing in itself is a subtle sign that you need to see a doctor urgently. Some other cases of shortness may last for just a short time and resolve spontaneously. This could be due to acute attacks in asthmatic patients, or those exposed to allergenic pollutants. However, whatever the cause or precipitant of difficulty in breathing is, you should see the doctor immediately if it has persisted for a long time or is gradually increasing in severity.

2. Severe or worsening headache

Everyone has headaches when they are stressed, hungry, or tired but a headache is also a sign of a more serious illness. When you have a fever or infectious disease, it is commonly accompanied by a headache. Hypertension, especially when it is uncontrolled, or any condition that reduces blood flow to your brain (migraine or positional hypotension when you suddenly raise your head from a lower position) can cause headaches.

That is to say that a headache is not always a small sign to ignore. So, how do you know you need to see a doctor when you have a headache? Headaches from common non-compliant causes usually respond to rehydration/drinking of water, rest, feeding, taking of deeper breaths, or OTC analgesic medications. However, when it is persistent and unresolved but increasingly becoming worse, it means you need to see a doctor urgently before it gets even more problematic.

3. Severe chest tightness or palpitation

Everyone experiences chest pain and palpitation but chest tightness is a sign you should never ignore. Chest tightness can be described as an inability to breathe properly because of a perceived feeling of tightness or pain in the chest. Chest tightness can indicate that there is a pulled chest muscle or muscle strain, heartburn, peptic ulcer, asthma, anxiety, or heart problems.

A racing heartbeat, also known as palpitation is experienced when you can hear or feel your heart beating rapidly against your chest. It can indicate extreme stress, heart conditions like hypertension and arrhythmias, as well as hormonal issues like hyperthyroidism.

For sake of the uncertainty in what could be the actual cause of a racing heart or chest tightness, it is important that you contact your doctor when you notice these symptoms. And if these persist long enough to cause significantly more distress, check into the hospital to see your doctor for further evaluation and treatments.

4. Intractable vomiting

Consuming food contaminated through unhygienic handling and preparation can induce you to vomit. Gastroenteritis or food poisoning is, by far, the commonest cause of vomiting globally[3]Vomiting in adults | NHS inform and it occurs when you eat food contaminated with disease-causing bacteria or viruses. Severe and intractable vomiting can lead to fluid depletion and hypotension, thus, an early visit to the doctor is recommended.

Vomiting can also be a sign of more severe disease conditions like appendicitis, raised pressure in the skull – Intracranial Pressure (ICP) caused by tumour or infection, or obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract.

Usually, the presence of more symptoms can make it easier to detect the exact cause. For example, vomiting with fever and abdominal pain can point to gastroenteritis from any cause. Vomiting that is forceful often describes either a raised ICP or a gastrointestinal tract obstruction.

Oftentimes, you need to see a doctor to determine the exact cause of vomiting, except if you could trace it to a recent ingestion of a potentially contaminated meal. Some of these cases can resolve spontaneously without any need for serious hospital care, but when it becomes retractable, persistent, and complicated, it is enough to see a doctor immediately.

Vomiting in children is even more sinister. Factors like lighter skin, poor fluid regulation, and low blood volume make children more susceptible to the effects of vomiting and dehydration. Children might also not be able to effectively replenish fluid through drinking like adults. Thus, gastrointestinal diseases like diarrhoea and vomiting have been ranked as some of the greatest childhood killer diseases.

In any of these cases of vomiting, it is important you seek the expert attention of a doctor urgently to avoid more severe/life-threatening complications.

5. High Fever

Fever results from the body’s response to fight infections in the blood and tissues. White blood cells and other immune cells in the body are recruited to the site of infection or cellular injury to fight against the offending agent. Fever results when these immune cells release chemicals called cytokines which trigger the brain to stimulate muscular activity to generate heat.

Fever is always a sign of an underlying problem in the body and needs to be attended to urgently. The specific causes of fever are broad and hard to identify without good clinical evaluation. When it is associated with other symptoms like headache, chest pain, abdominal pain, etc, the diagnosis may differ depending on the specific additional symptom.

High-grade fever is described as a body temperature greater than or equal to 103°F or 39°C. For children, high-grade fever is taken as 102°F or 38.9°C. This oftentimes indicates a serious underlying cause and needs the contribution of a health expert, particularly the physician.

MSN Lifestyle recommends that you see a doctor urgently when you have a high-grade fever, or if the fever lasts longer than three consecutive days. Fever may respond to common analgesics like Paracetamol but if it persists or re-occurs after a brief period of relief, it warrants paying a visit to the health clinic.

6. Persistent abdominal pain or bloating

Abdominal pain often goes with other gastrointestinal diseases. It indicates that something is going wrong with the stomach, intestines, and other intra-abdominal organs. When bloating is associated with abdominal pain, it often indicates an issue with the intestines, especially indigestion.

Pain on the upper part of the abdomen close to the middle chest often indicates peptic ulcer or gastritis. Pain in the lower right and left abdomen generally indicates a problem with other abdominal organs like the liver, spleen, and pancreas. Pain on the flanks indicates a problem with the kidneys. While lower abdominal pain often indicates issues with organs of the genitourinary tract like the bladder, ovaries, and uterus.

Abdominal pain can be easily ignored as insignificant, and most times, it resolves spontaneously. However, there are cases when you need to see a doctor as soon as possible. If you notice persistent abdominal pain and bloating, it could point to indigestion or intestinal obstruction. These can develop into serious problems when allowed to go untreated.

Once you notice abdominal pain that has persisted beyond 3-5 days, you should see the doctor immediately. It is also important for you to note the character of the pain (dull, sharp, burning, etc), if it radiates or spread to other parts of the body, and if it is associated with any time of the day, meals, etc. These are some of the questions your doctor would like to know about when evaluating you.

7. Unprovoked back or joint pain

Unprovoked acute back or joint pain is another important sign you need to see a doctor. Acute pain refers to any type of pain of sudden onset while chronic pain is any pain that has been for some time. Acute pain is usually more severe and life-threatening than chronic pain, and thus, you need to urgently see a doctor if you are having acute back or joint pain.

Back pain is a very common complaint for most people. As many as 16 million American adults persistently experience back pain which contributes significantly to the overall health cost in the United States of over $12 billion yearly.[4]B. Druss, Marcus, S., Olfson, M., and Pincus, H.A. (2002). “The Most Expensive Medical Conditions in America.” Health Affairs, 21(4): 105-111.

Trauma to the back, long periods of inactivity or lack of exercise, old age (osteoporosis, arthritis, and spondylosis), abnormal postures, and infiltrative diseases of the spine can result in back pain. Sometimes, it spontaneously resolves, other times it does not. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends you see a doctor if your back pain lasts more than a few weeks at a time; if it is constant; if it is accompanied by muscle weakness or numbness; if it presents with fever; if it radiates down into your legs; or if the pain comes with sudden unexplained weight loss. See your doctor if you have a fever or if you have swelling alongside your pain.

Treatment of joint and back pain goes beyond the use of OTC analgesics. Your doctor would first determine the root cause and then give you the right analgesics that would be effective to manage the pain. Your doctor may also refer you for chiropractic treatment, or a joint preservation specialist if it involves your joint, or may prepare you for a surgical operation to treat the pain and/or its cause.

Pain is often a warning sign that something is going wrong in your body, and when it persists particularly on the back or at a joint, despite conservative management and over-the-counter medications, you need to see the doctor immediately. Persistent back pain lasting greater than 2-3 weeks is a major sign you need to see your doctor now.

8. Struggling with an addiction

Very few people know that their primary healthcare doctors can help them when they are struggling with an addiction, but this is the fact. Doctors can help you start your recovery from addiction by prescribing helpful medications and can refer you to a rehabilitation centre while still keeping an eye on your progress.

According to the American Addiction Centers (AAC), a general physician can be the ideal partner in fighting substance abuse and staying on the recovery path. The doctor can give you drugs to help reduce withdrawal symptoms, balance your brain chemistry, and/or deter you from developing cravings for the substance.

A doctor can monitor you compassionately while giving you counsel that will motivate you to continue on the journey to quit an addiction. It is not surprising to know that a doctor can do all these, is it? After all, being empathic and compassionate to the patient is part of what they are taught in training. Just like a therapist, the doctor will never divulge confidential information about you and your condition but will utilize it to your maximum benefit and improvement.

9. Any abnormal signs during pregnancy

Things are not the same during pregnancy immediately after the pregnancy test shows positive. You need to take more caution during this time. Pregnancy is associated with a lot of symptoms that may be normal even when they look abnormal. Similarly, some seemingly normal symptoms may turn out to be abnormal. How does one then tell the difference between what is normal during pregnancy and what is not?

Every unusual symptom during pregnancy is enough reason to see your doctor. It is recommended that pregnant women book antenatal clinics as early as 7-8 weeks of pregnancy (that is about a month after missing your period with a positive pregnancy test). This ensures that your doctor offers specialised care throughout your pregnancy and attends to all abnormal symptoms you might experience.

Your doctor will request for several investigations and give you special medications during your visits. A woman with a previous history of miscarriage or any bad obstetric history will receive more focused attention, while intra-uterine ultrasound scans and genetic tests for congenital anomalies may be requested for a pregnant woman 35 years or older.

10. Seizure or vision loss

A seizure is any abnormal neuronal activity from the brain that leads to motor, sensory, or psychic manifestations. Motor manifestations of seizures are generally referred to as convulsions described as jerking, stiffness, or abnormal movement of the limbs and body. Abnormal sensations or perceptions of psychic experience, for example, hallucinations, can also be associated with a seizure.

The presence of a seizure always indicates a problem with the brain or its covering. It may be due to traumatic or metabolic causes, tumours of the brain, infections, etc.

Visual loss can accompany a seizure or occur on its own. It could be sudden/acute or insidious. When associated with pain, it means something different as well. Any of these cases reflects a more sinister underlying condition that needs the attention of a physician.


Delays in seeking the expert care of a doctor are one of the leading preventable causes of death globally, and this can be due to several reasons. Delays are related to poor socio-economic status, poor decision-making ability, as well as lack of awareness of warning signs that may need the doctor’s attention. This post has a majority of the subtle signs that herald a need to see the doctor.

Lastly, it is important to remember that failure to see the doctor on time can lead to more severe/life-threatening complications and preventable death. Hence, it is important to know these subtle signs that you need to see a doctor urgently.

Prosper Yole is a medical doctor, a seasoned writer and passionate blogger. He is the founder of Knowseeker.com. With many years of trials, failure, and near successes in areas of relationship, health, business & entrepreneurship, personal development, and content writing, he creates quality content that resonates well with his audience across the entire internet.

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