Conditioned to be care-givers rather than care-getters, women frequently downplay their own seemingly insignificant symptoms, such as bloating and headaches. Many doctors trivialize women's complaints, too.

Example: Among patients with chest pain, men are more likely than women to be given a screening test for heart disease, while women are more likely than men to be offered tranquilizers-even though heart disease is the number-one killer of Americans of both sexes.

Self-defense: Familiarize yourself with the conditions that a new or persistent symptom could signal, then see your doctor as soon as possible and insist on being given the appropriate diagnostic tests—the first step toward successful treatment. When a worrisome symptom suggests multiple possible causes, a thorough physical examination should help your doctor prioritize the tests.

  • Swelling could be due to fluid retention from your period, varicose veins, eating too much salt or sitting too long. But watch out for…
  • Chronic kidney disease—especially if swelling is severe enough to leave indentations when the skin is pressed. This common condition, which often goes undiagnosed, increases the risk for heart attack, stroke and kidney failure. Action: Diagnosis requires a urine test for the protein albumin...a blood test for the waste product urea nitrogen... and a glomerular filtration rate calculation based on blood and urine levels of the waste product creatinine and other factors.
  • Heart failure, in which the heart's pumping action is insufficient to meet all of the body's needs. Other telltale symptoms include shortness of breath and rapid pulse. Action: Get blood tests and imaging tests—most importantly, an echocardiogram (heart ultrasound).
  • Blood clot--if swelling appears in only one leg and the area is tender. A clot that breaks off and travels to the lungs can be fatal. Action: Go to the emergency room. You need an ultrasound or computed tomography (CT) scan.
  • Change in bowel habits may signal the onset of lactose intolerance (dairy food sensitivity) or irritable bowel syndrome (bouts of constipation and/or diarrhea that are uncomfortable but not dangerous). But watch out for…
  • Celiac disease, a genetic disorder in which gluten-a protein in wheat, rye, barley and certain other grains-damages the small intestine. Celiac disease is more common in women than men, can develop at any time, may lead to malnutrition and loss of bone density and increases the risk for digestive tract cancers. Action: Diagnosis is made with a tissue transglutaminase (tTG) and/or an endomysial antibody (EMA) blood test.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which involves chronic inflammation of, and ulcers in the digestive tract. IBD increases colorectal cancer risk. Action: You should have X-rays of the gastrointestinal tract. If X-rays suggest IBD, blood tests for certain types of antibodies can help determine your specific type of IBD. Also get a colonoscopy (visual examination of the colon using a flexible lighted tube) to check for precancerous polyps and cancerous growths. Abnormal tissue must be biopsied.
  • Colorectal cancer, the number two cause of cancer deaths in the US after lung cancer. Other signs include blood in the stool, abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss. Action: You must have a colonoscopy, including removal of suspicious polyps and biopsy of tissues.
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding (heavy bleeding or bleeding between periods) prior to menopause suggests fibroids (benign uterine growths)...irregular ovulation...or menstrual changes typical of perimenopause. But watch out for…
  • Gynecologic cancer, such as cancer of the endometrium (uterine lining) or cervix. Even light vaginal bleeding can signal cancer or precancer if it occurs between cycles.. and after menopause, any vaginal bleeding at all is cause for concern. Action: Call your gynecologist right away. If a pelvic exam and transvaginal ultrasound detect suspicious tissue, a biopsy is needed.
  • Breast changes, such as lumps and tenderness, often are signs of benign breast cysts (fluid-filled sacs). But watch out for…
  • Breast cancer—particularly if you also have nipple discharge, puckered or pitted skin, redness or a change in breast contours. Don't dismiss symptoms just because your last mammogram was negative-mammograms miss up to 20% of breast cancers. An aggressive type called inflammatory breast cancer is especially hard to detect with mammography because it forms no lumps, but instead causes tenderness, swelling, itching and/or redness. Action: If you notice something abnormal or different, a biopsy is almost certainly warranted. Your doctor also may order magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). When a woman's symptoms or high-risk status indicate a medical need for a breast MRI, insurance generally pays.
  • Headache may occur because you are prone to tension headaches or migraines. These types of headaches are more common in women. But watch out for…
  • Brain tumor—if you recently started having headaches, especially in the mornings, or have experienced a change in headache patterns. Action: Call your doctor immediately. An MRI or CT scan can rule out a brain tumor.
  • Meningitis—if the headache is accompanied by a fever and stiff neck. This deadly infection causes inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Action: Go to the ER immediately. You need a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to check for white blood cells and bacteria in the cerebrospinal fluid.
  • Bleeding in the brain—particularly if head pain is sudden and extremely severe. Possible causes include a cerebral aneurysm la bulging, weakened area in a brain artery)...subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding beneath the tissues covering the brain)...or hemorrhagic stroke. Action: Call 911. You need magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), which produces detailed images of blood vessels...and a lumbar puncture to check for red blood cells in the cerebrospinal fluid.
  • Chest pain frequently can be a symptom of heartburn. But watch out for…
  • Heart disease. Although chest pain is more typical in men with heart disease, it also is a common sign of heart trouble in women. Be especially vigilant if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a history of smoking or a family history of heart problems. Action: If you are at risk for heart disease, ask for an ultrafast heart CT scan, a noninvasive test that measures calcium buildup in coronary arteries. Chest pain with fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness or back pain could signal a heart attack—so call 911.

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