By Consumer Reports
Have you ever phoned your doctor about a sudden medical concern — one that had you predicting a trip to the hospital, emergency surgery or even impending death?
When an apparently healthy body malfunctions in an unexpected or mysterious way, many people fear the worst. But sometimes a simple explanation can result in a cure. Here are five common symptoms that appear to be ominous, and the benign factors that are often behind them:
The black stool
Not long ago, a 53-year-old accountant called Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser, Marvin M. Lipman, in a mild panic. He had passed a black stool and was worried that he might be bleeding from colon cancer. A rectal exam did indeed reveal a black stool, but the specimen was negative when tested for blood. The culprit was bismuth subsalicylate, the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol, which the patient had taken for an upset stomach a day earlier.
Other non-worrisome causes of dark stools include iron tablets and certain dark-colored foods, notably beets, blackberries, blueberries and squid-ink pasta.
A sigh is just a sigh
If you’ve experienced the sensation of being unable to take a deep enough breath, you know how uncomfortable it can be. These “sighing” respirations, which can occur several times per hour, can lead people to fear that each episode may be their last.
But lung and heart function are almost invariably normal. Those sighing breaths are, ironically, a physical manifestation of underlying anxiety. And the sighs often subside on their own with sufficient reassurance from your doctor that all is well. If they don’t, that underlying anxiety should be treated.
The red-eye special
A subconjunctival hemorrhage sounds horrendous and looks even worse — with the white of one eye suddenly turning flaming red. A person experiencing this may worry about eye disease or bleeding disorders, but the hemorrhage is harmless. The redness is caused by the rupture of a tiny capillary under the conjunctiva, the delicate transparent membrane that covers the white of the eye. This can result from any effort that acutely raises pressure inside the head, such as bending over, coughing, sneezing, straining (as with weightlifting or a bowel movement) or orgasm. No treatment is needed; the blood will slowly resorb on its own within a couple of weeks.
You might become concerned if a friend notes that your skin, especially on the palms, is orange-yellow. Could it be jaundice caused by hepatitis or liver cancer? Not if the whites of your eyes and your urine are normal in color. What you have is carotenemia, a benign staining to the skin that comes from eating a lot of carrots or other veggies high in beta carotene or from taking beta carotene supplements.
A tender chest
This uncomfortable chest lump generally comes to medical attention during the summer or after a patient, almost always a man, returns from a tropical paradise during the winter. Out of nowhere, it seems, there’s a painful protuberance at the lower end of the breastbone or sternum.
Actually, the “lump” is the xiphoid process, the quarter-size cartilaginous end of the bony sternum. In most men, this projects forward a bit and becomes tender when subjected to constant pressure from, for instance, lying facedown on a sandy beach for hours on end. The sensitivity subsides within a week or so if that prone position is avoided.
All’s well that ends well
The accountant was relieved to learn that he was not bleeding internally — and mildly embarrassed he hadn’t read the label on the Pepto-Bismol, which warned of the possibility of black stools. But because his father had died of colon cancer, he was referred for a colonoscopy, which revealed a precancerous tumor that was removed.
So never be embarrassed about calling your doctor when you notice an unusual symptom, even if you suspect reassurance is the only treatment required. The accountant’s failure to read that Pepto-Bismol label may have saved his life.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health