8 Warning Signs Women Over 40 Shouldn't Ignore

Got a cough? Bloating? Tingling in the feet? How to tell when symptoms that seem minor are really trying to tell you something.

By Ginny Graves
Photograph: Illustration by The Heads of State

Symptom: Pain and Swelling in Your Calf

Most minor discomfort is a sign of…not much. Maybe you had a heavy meal, a stressful day, a hard workout — and by the next day you feel fine again. But a handful of trivial-sounding symptoms can sometimes be red flags for something more serious. Since it’s often hard to distinguish between the no big deal and the dire, most of us err on the side of ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away. "Women in midlife are often juggling 20 things at once, so they tend to neglect their own health," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, author of Dr. Nieca Goldberg’s Complete Guide to Women’s Health. "That’s why it’s especially important for them to be informed about what really needs medical attention." Here, a guide to eight important symptoms: when you should see a doctor and when you can just keep cruising.

Pain and Swelling in Your Calf

Likely cause: Pulled muscle

Worst-case scenario: Blood clot in the leg

Calf pain is the most common symptom of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a clot in a deep vein, which is a potentially fatal condition that strikes an estimated 350,000 to 600,000 people in the U.S. every year — most of them 40 and over. "The clot blocks blood flow, causing pain and swelling," says Stephan Moll, MD, of the National Alliance for Thrombosis and Thrombophilia.

Other signs it may be serious: Symptoms of a clot can be pronounced, with significant swelling, redness, and pain, but they can also be mild and easily mistaken for a cramp. The skin may also be warm to the touch. If you’re short of breath, coughing, experiencing chest pain, or having difficulty breathing, a clot may have broken free and traveled to your lungs, clogging a blood vessel there. You’re at increased risk for DVT if you’re on hormone therapy, the pill, patch, or ring; if you smoke or are pregnant; if you’ve just had surgery or have been on a plane flight or car trip longer than three hours; if you’re obese; or if you have a family history of blood clots.

When to act: If the symptoms come on suddenly and don’t go away in a few hours, call your doctor for a same-day appointment. If she can’t see you, go to the ER right away, especially if the swelling and pain are significant, you’re having any breathing or chest symptoms, or you have any other risk factors. "It’s better to err on the side of caution," Moll says. "Half of people with DVT develop a blood clot in the lungs, a condition that can be fatal." Blood clots are usually diagnosed with ultrasound and treated with intravenous blood thinners for a few days, followed by several months of medication. They can be prevented with some lifestyle changes: Maintain a healthy weight; don’t smoke; and on long trips be sure to get up and walk around.

Symptom: Flu-Like Feelings (Fatigue, Nausea, Sweating, Chills)

Likely cause: Virus

Worst-case scenario: Heart attack

"Women tend not to have the Hollywood heart attack with significant chest pain," Goldberg says. "They sometimes just feel like they’re coming down with an infection." That could be one reason women having heart attacks take more than 11 minutes longer than men, on average, to go to the ER.

Other signs it may be serious: Shortness of breath; dizziness; pressure, squeezing, or pain in the chest; pain in the back, arm, jaw, or upper abdomen.

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