As women we are trained from youth to take care of those around us. Unfortunately, this can mean we disregard our own health signals and this can lead to serious consequences. In the past most of the symptoms for serious health risks we those for men. It wasn't noted how women's bodies were different and that their symptoms were often more obscure. Now that this information is coming to light, it is important to educate ourselves, and if you are a service professional, be able to respond appropriately if your client has concerns or you note changes in their health. While we cannot self diagnose, or diagnose medical issues in others, we can learn when to get something checked.
One of the tricky parts is that different medical challenges can often have similar symptoms. This is reinforcement that if we see the symptoms, we need to get them checked. In this blog we are going to cover 4 important conditions that can lead to serious medical issues if not checked and treated: dehydration, anemia, heart attack and sleep apnea.
Dehydration happens when the water levels in the body drop to unsafe levels. When we become dehydrated more water is moving out of our cells and the body than we are taking in. With the water loss comes salt loss. Salt loss can cause the body to become out of balance and severe dehydration can even lead to death. Existing medical health conditions, diseases that cause diarrhea and/or vomiting, no access to water or a severe injury can all lead to dehydration. Symptoms include:
Dry mouth and swollen tongue
Palpitations (feeling that the heart is jumping or pounding)
Inability to sweat
Decreased urine output
If you note any of these symptoms is is important to seek medical advice. In the mean time get the person seated and comfortable, try to cool the person down and get moisture in them via water, popsicles, ice chips, sports drinks. If this doesn't help, get medical assistance.
Anemia is caused by a lack of adequate red blood cells. It is sometimes challenging to address as there are over 400 different types. Medical assistance is important. We know anemia is common in women in child bearing years, but there are women who are genetically predisposed to this condition and fight it their entire life. Anemia can also be caused by internal bleeding. This might be triggered by medications being taken for another condition, such as aspirin or ibuprofen for headaches or other aches and pains. Or it could be caused by other medical conditions. Anemia can have sneaky symptoms that are often confused with other disorders. The most common symptoms of anemia include:
Easy fatigue and loss of energy
Unusually rapid heart beat, particularly with exercise
Shortness of breath and headache, particularly with exercise
Since there are lots of potential causes that need unique treatments, if someone is experiencing potential anemia symptoms it is important that they see a physician. It is not something that can be addressed by self medication and could make the problem worse.
Heart attacks in women can be very different from those in men. Part of this may stem from the way a woman's body handles cholesterol build up different from her male counterpart. When men develop a plaque buildup it occurs in the major arteries. They tend to carry their excess fat in the belly. We women on the other hand are hiders and smoothers. We send the excess cholesterol to the tiniest little arterioles where the blood oxygen interchange is supposed to take place. We smooth it away across all of our body. We are excellent at hiding the problem. So when the body does go into a heart attack while the symptoms can be similar as a mans, more frequently they are not. This is because the problem causers are not in the same place. In a CPR First Aid class I recently took, one of the attendees, a woman told of having a heart attack 8 years ago. She never had any chest pain. She had indigestion. Then she had it again. She did notice some tiredness and a bit of tightness but mostly indigestion. Her husband finally took her to an emergency room to get checked up. The technician on duty noticed her pallor and too intervention steps. She was having a heart attack.
Web MD says there are 6 symptoms for heart attack in women and if you have one or more signs you should call 911 and seek immediate medical care. Those symptoms include:
- Chest pain or discomfort. Chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom, but some women may experience it differently than men. It may feel like a squeezing or fullness, and the pain can be anywhere in the chest, not just on the left side. It's usually "truly uncomfortable" during a heart attack, says cardiologist Rita Redberg, MD, director of Women’s Cardiovascular Services at the University of California, San Francisco. "It feels like a vise being tightened."
- Pain in your arm(s), back, neck, or jaw. This type of pain is more common in women than in men. It may confuse women who expect their pain to be focused on their chest and left arm, not their back or jaw. The pain can be gradual or sudden, and it may wax and wane before becoming intense. If you're asleep, it may wake you up. You should report any "not typical or unexplained" symptoms in any part of your body above your waist to your doctor or other health care provider, says cardiologist C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
- Stomach pain. Sometimes people mistake stomach pain that signals a heart attack with heartburn, the flu, or a stomach ulcer. Other times, women experience severe abdominal pressure that feels like an elephant sitting on your stomach, says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.
- Shortness of breath, nausea, or lightheadedness. If you're having trouble breathing for no apparent reason, you could be having a heart attack, especially if you're also having one or more other symptoms. "It can feel like you have run a marathon, but you didn't make a move," Goldberg says.
- Sweating. Breaking out in a nervous, cold sweat is common among women who are having a heart attack. It will feel more like stress-related sweating than perspiration from exercising or spending time outside in the heat. "Get it checked out" if you don't typically sweat like that and there is no other reason for it, such as heat or hot flashes, Bairey Merz says.
- Fatigue. Some women who have heart attacks feel extremely tired, even if they've been sitting still for a while or haven't moved much. "Patients often complain of a tiredness in the chest," Goldberg says. "They say that they can't do simple activities, like walk to the bathroom."
- So if you experience any of these, or more than one, seek help to save a life.
Sleep Apnea is a really sneaky disorder and can be even sneakier in women. Typically tied into loud snoring this symptom is very typical in men. With the slightly different structural differences in women this symptom can present, come and go, or be completely absent. A big part of the symptoms will be dependent on the cause. In most people one side of the nose and sinuses is slightly larger. If the person sleeps with this larger side up there are less breathing issues. But if they sleep on their back or other side, symptoms may be more pronounced. If the problem is being caused by a physical structural blockage these symptoms may be absent.
This problem is one I had a rather personal encounter with. In the past I used to have a problem with sometimes loud breathing that was generally not prolonged but rather interrupted with perhaps gasps. But as a physical blockage in my throat became enlarged the symptoms changed and I quit snoring almost complete. Problem cured :) Not exactly. It just morphed. Instead of snoring I had morphed into the more insidious symptom. I quit breathing. Thank goodness a friend alerted me. They had sleep apnea and recognized it for what it was.
At first I wanted to blow it off, but when I researched it online and saw the health ramifications: high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, asthma, acid reflux, and car accidents.
I made the call and saw a specialist in sleep disorders. I found out that I was stopping breathing for 30-60 seconds many times an hours. My blood oxygen levels were dropped from the normal 99-100% (normal is above 90%) to 60%. In the educational discussion I realized that my falling asleep sitting on the sofa at night was probably sleep deprivation from not sleeping anywhere near normally. I underwent a sleep study, spending the night at the sleep center wired into a computer via probes all over my head and upper body. They actually interrupted the study after only about 2 hours and pronounced the problem and hooked me up to a fine trickle of oxygen. When they woke me in the morning it was the first time in a very long time I had gotten up without a headache - another symptom of the oxygen deprivation. They put me on a fast track and in a week I had a device to help assure good airflow and elimination of the problem. I fully admit it takes a bit of getting used to but the health benefits are well worth it. By the follow up visit the doctor tested my blood oxygen and it was 99%. He even assured me if I missed a night or didn't have a full night sleep with the device it was just fine. I was very concerned how this would impact my personal life but found it has not been an issue. It has however left me with elevated blood pressure which is now being treated and monitored.
When I visited a new PCP in January I was rather surprised to see the signs in the patient room about the symptoms of sleep apnea. Clearly, this disorder is finally being more aggressively treated by medical professionals as controlling it will control many other medical disorders.