14 April 2008

What's stalking you?

You could be one of the many people walking around with an undiagnosed condition. Find out here.

It is unexpectedly common for people to suffer from a disease they do not know they have – mild symptoms could indicate something more serious is looming.

Being proactive and informed can help prevent the onset of many of these diseases.

1. Possible symptoms

  • swelling of the lower leg
  • vision difficulties like photophobia (light sensitivity), irritation of the eyes with excessive tearing, protrusion of the eyeball and/or double vision
  • diarrhoea
  • increased appetite
  • increased sweating or an intolerance to heat

Or, more obviously, if you suffer sudden paralysis, you might have thyroid disease.

Thyroid disease
Thyroid disease, or hyperthyroidism, stimulates over-activity in the thyroid gland, leading to over-production of thyroid hormone. It is an autoimmune disease, meaning that it causes the body’s immune system to attack its own organs. Thyroid disease can result in accelerated metabolism and may eventually lead to heart disease, difficulty during pregnancy and bone loss.

You’re at risk if:
Thyroid disease tends to affect men and women over the age of 50.

Cause/risk factors:

  • family members with a history of hyperthyroidism
  • having been previously diagnosed with thyroid nodules (lumps in the thyroid gland. They are usually non-cancerous)
  • having suffered from another type of thyroid condition in the past
  • a history of infertility
  • having an enlarged thyroid

2. Possible symptoms

  • headaches
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • blurred vision

Chances are you might have high blood pressure or hypertension.

High blood pressure
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is the name given to the increase in pressure in the arteries as blood flows through them. High blood pressure commonly goes undiagnosed due to its vagueness or absence of symptoms. It may eventually lead to the damage of organ tissue. Then you're at risk of loss of vision, kidney and/or heart failure, stroke or transient ischaemic attack (“mini stroke”), or aneurysms.

You’re at risk if:
You're older than 25 (though you're not immune at any age).

Cause/risk factors:

  • a family history of hypertension
  • smoking
  • obesity
  • a diet high in salt
  • lack of exercise
  • certain medicines, such as steroids
  • diabetes

3. Possible symptoms

  • frequent urination, especially at night
  • dry mouth along with extreme thirst
  • increased appetite, even just after eating
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • inexplicable weight loss
  • blurred vision
  • headaches

Or you might even lose consciousness. You might have diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is a disease that affects to the body’s capacity of managing glucose. It is characterised by disordered metabolism which then results in low levels of insulin and hypoglycaemia. (Those who have type 1 diabetes are insulin-dependent and the condition often appears early in life.)

Cause/risk factors:

  • a family history of diabetes
  • age
  • poor dietary habits such as low protein or fibre intake
  • lack of exercise
  • obesity
  • stress

You’re at risk if:
There is an increase in the incidence of type 2 diabetes across all age and race groups. Everyone's risk of contracting the disease increases with age.

Similar symptoms
Symptoms between the two types of diabetes are relatively similar, but those who suffer from type 1 diabetes are at greater risk of going into a diabetic coma, especially if the condition is not well-controlled. For many people who have type 2 diabetes, lifestyle- and diet modifications can keep the condition under control for years.

4. Possible symptoms:

  • increased appetite
  • sweating
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • tremors
  • palpitations

If you suffer from the following symptoms, you might have hypoglycaemia.

Hypoglycaemia is a syndrome that causes lower than normal blood glucose levels. It is a disease that is frequently associated with diabetes.

You’re at risk if:
Determining the prevalence of hypoglycaemia within a population is not easy. Many of the symptoms such as hunger and increased appetite experienced by patients are attributed to hypoglycaemia without the presence of a low blood sugar level being taken into account. Additionally, hypoglycaemia is a known complication of several medications and diabetic therapies, making the process of determining its prevalence even more difficult.

Cause/risk factors:

  • currently suffering from diabetes
  • critical illnesses, such liver and kidney disorders, and starvation
  • excessive alcohol intake
  • endocrine deficiencies

If the brain reaches a state of persistent low glucose availability, the following symptoms may become apparent:

  • uncharacteristic behaviour along with a perceived state of confusion. The patient would also exhibit an inability to complete everyday tasks.
  • double or blurred vision
  • uncommon symptoms include seizures and loss of consciousness

5. Possible symptoms
In adults:

  • diarrhoea
  • abdominal discomfort
  • bloating
  • steatorrhea/fatty stools (results from malabsorption of undigested fat)
  • weight loss due to malabsorption

In children:

  • vomiting/nausea
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhoea
  • depression
  • irritability

If you have these symptoms, you may have coeliac disease.

Coeliac disease
Coeliac disease, or ‘sprue’, refers to an allergy of gluten, a protein found in wheat. Sufferers are encouraged not to consume food that contains gluten as it results in damage to the villi in the small intestine, resulting in malabsorption. The only treatment available is a strict nutrition plan that places sufferers on a gluten-free diet for life.

Coeliac disease affects people of all ages and can manifest at any time in a person’s life.

Cause/risk factors:

  • family history of celiac disease or autoimmune diseases
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • type 1 diabetes
  • thyroid disease
  • microscopic colitis
  • lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease that could be fatal, though recent medical advances have helped to remedy that fact

High cholesterol
Manifestation of the disease is usually only discovered by routine screening or when a disease associated with high cholesterol becomes apparent. The only reliable symptom that would denote the presence of high cholesterol would be heart failure.

A person with high cholesterol usually does not experience any symptoms.

You’re at risk if:
People over the age of 20 are at increased risk of developing high cholesterol and are therefore encouraged to have their cholesterol levels screened on an annual basis.

Cause/risk factors:

  • a family history of high cholesterol
  • poor diet
  • obesity
  • lack of exercise
  • excessive alcohol intake
  • stress

6. Possible symptoms:

  • wheezing
  • breathlessness
  • tightness in the chest
  • coughing, recurring or chronic. It is common for patients to experience worse coughing during the early morning or late at night
  • difficulty speaking
  • agitation
  • speech interrupted by coughing or gasping
  • during inhalation, the nostrils may flare. This is a common characteristic amongst children

If you have some of the above symptoms, you may have asthma.

Asthma is a disease that affects the bronchioles (breathing passages) of the lungs. Inflammation of the bronchioles is what gives the disease its chronic nature.

You’re at risk if:
Asthma usually occurs in childhood, but cases have been recorded of it occurring amongst adults of middle age and older.

Risk factors:

  • history of asthma
  • living in an urban area
  • exposure to second hand smoke
  • a low birth weight
  • exposure to irritants

7. Possible symptoms:

  • few or no menstrual periods
  • irregular or heavy vaginal bleeding
  • loss of hair on the scalp and hair growth (hirsutism) on the face, stomach, chest, back, toes and/or thumbs. It is believed that this irregular hair growth is the result of high androgen levels
  • acne and oily skin
  • depression and mood swings

If you experience the above symptoms, you may have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is a disease in women that is characterised by excessive hair growth, obesity and acne. Women suffering from PCOS may also either experience irregular periods or not have them at all.

You’re at risk if:
Women under the age of 30 are more susceptible to developing PCOS.

Cause/risk factors:
The precise cause of PCOS is unknown.

More gradual symptoms may eventually manifest. These include:

  • weight gain
  • male-pattern baldness
  • miscarriages. (This is most likely due to high insulin levels.)
  • infertility due to the ovaries not ovulating
  • breathing problems while sleeping (sleep apnoea)
  • pain in the lower abdomen and pelvis

8. Possible symptoms

  • blurred vision (or loss of vision)
  • seeing haloes around lights
  • intense pain in the eye
  • headaches
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea and vomiting

If you experience the above symptoms, you may have glaucoma.

Glaucoma refers to specific diseases that affect the eyes. They increase pressure within the eyeball, causing vision impairment and blindness. ¬¬Glaucoma does not usually exhibit symptoms until significant vision loss becomes apparent. It affects the optic nerve fibres of the eye, causing gradual damage that initially only produces small blind spots. Total blindness will eventually result once a significant amount of damage has occurred.

You’re at risk if:
Glaucoma affects adult men and women but more commonly those over the age of 40.

Cause/risk factors:

  • a family history of glaucoma
  • certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease
  • physical injuries, like damage to the eye or an increase in pressure in the eyeball
  • near-sightedness
  • prolonged usage of corticosteroids
  • abnormalities in the eye

9. Possible symptoms

  • sharp, sporadic pain that may take up to a month to dissipate.
  • stooped posture (dowager’s hump) that results from loss of height.
  • spinal compression, leading to fractures
  • abdominal pain
  • tooth loss
  • pain in the ribs
  • broken bones

If you experience the above symptoms, you may have osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is a degenerative disease that affects bones, causing them to lose density and mass. It is known to typically affect women who have passed menopause. It may initially not display any symptoms but it might cause dull pain in the bones and muscles at a later stage, most notably in the lower back and the neck. As the disease progresses, the above-mentioned symptoms may become more apparent.

You’re at risk if:
Osteoporosis affects more than one third of women over the age of 50. Nearly 50% of women over 70 are affected by the disease. Patients are usually diagnosed with the disease between the ages of 50 and 70. It affects men as well, but to a lesser degree with one in three men developing the disease during their lifetime. Though usually considered to be an “old person’s disease”, osteoporosis can affect adults in their mid-thirties or earlier.

Cause/risk factors:

  • family history of osteoporosis
  • obesity
  • factors that cause lower bone density in women, such as menopause, oestrogen deficiency or irregular menstruation
  • deficiencies of calcium or vitamin D
  • excessive alcohol intake
  • conditions that affect nutrition and absorption
  • smoking
  • lack of exercise
  • age
  • a lower bone peak density, which occurs at about 30 years of age
  • certain long-term medications, such as steroids

10. Possible symptoms

  • nausea
  • cramps
  • bloating
  • flatulence/Gas
  • diarrhoea

The above are possible symptoms of lactose intolerance and usually occur after a sufferer has consumed dairy products.

Lactose intolerance
Lactose intolerance is the incapability of being able to metabolise lactose. It is a very common digestive condition form which nearly 70% of adults suffer.

You’re at risk if:
Ethnicity is a determining factor in who is affected by lactose intolerance. Before humans became adept at dairy farming, many adults did not consume dairy products after childhood. Races that are, historically speaking, ‘newer’ to the concept of dairy farming, are therefore more susceptible to lactose intolerance. Africans, mixed-race peoples and Asians are more likely to suffer from the disorder than people of European descent.

Cause/risk factors:

  • age. Lactose intolerance usually becomes apparent in children after the age of 5
  • premature birth. Babies born after 28-32 weeks of gestation have lower levels of lactase as this enzyme only increases in the foetus during the third trimester of pregnancy

11. Possible symptoms

  • fatigue/weakness
  • abdominal pain
  • muscle aches
  • irregular periods in women
  • joint pain in the fingers
  • loss of body hair
  • pigmentation increase in the skin, giving it a bronze appearance

If you experience the above symptoms, you may have haemochromatosis.

Haemochromatosis is a condition that causes sufferers to experience an increase in iron absorption from their daily diet, effectively leading to ‘iron overload’. If left untreated, the disease can lead to further, more severe conditions.

You’re at risk if:
Haemochromatosis is a fairly common genetic condition. Since the disease commonly goes undiagnosed, exact figures of incidence are hard to establish. However, it is known that it is roughly five times more common in men than women. Men also develop symptoms at an earlier age.

Risk factors:

  • a family history of haemochromatosis
  • a defection/mutation in the HFE gene

12. Possible symptoms

  • impulsive behaviour in a child
  • hyperactivity where the child cannot sit still or has an incessant need to be active
  • inattention
  • rapid speech with a tendency to constantly change topics

If your child is experiencing the above symptoms, he/she may be suffering from ADHD.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
ADHD is a very common mental condition. It develops in childhood and, if left undiagnosed, can have far-reaching consequences later in sufferers’ lives.

You’re at risk if:
ADHD usually first becomes apparent in children under the age of five, with diagnosis occurring more frequently in children aged eight. It is three to five times more prevalent among boys than girls. Diagnosis of ADHD in adults also occurs, but not to the same degree as it does in children.

Cause/risk factors:

  • distorted brain anatomy and altered function
  • a family history of ADHD
  • pregnant women who smoke, use drugs or are exposed to toxins place the foetus at risk of developing ADHD
  • exposure to environmental toxins during childhood

13. Possible symptoms

  • excessive fatigue during the day
  • heartburn along with a sour taste in the mouth
  • urination at night (nocturia)
  • chest pain and sweating while sleeping
  • in obese sufferers, leg swelling may occur
  • unfulfilling sleep, leading to difficulty concentrating, personality changes and difficulties with memory
  • headaches - may occur during sleep or when the suffer is conscious

When observed by others, the following may be seen:

  • episodes of not breathing while sleeping
  • restlessness while sleeping. The sufferer will constantly toss and turn in bed
  • gasping or choking spells
  • snoring – a very common symptom

If the above symptoms are experienced, you may have sleep apnoea.

Sleep apnoea
Sleep apnoea is a sleep disorder that is characterised by sufferers pausing during breaths while sleeping. These pauses regularly last the length of one or two breaths and occur repeatedly during sleep. Pauses during breaths that last longer than 10 seconds are associated with sleep apnoea.

You’re at risk if:
Sleep apnoea occurs more commonly amongst men than women and more frequently in adults older than 65.

Cause/risk factors:

  • obesity
  • circumference of the neck - thicker necks of overweight people may narrow their airways
  • hypertension
  • a narrow airway, possibly caused by enlarged tonsils or adenoids
  • a family history of sleep apnoea
  • alcohol, tranquillizer or sedative use
  • smoking

14. Possible symptoms

  • dystharia (difficulty speaking)
  • ptosis (drooping eyelids)
  • diplopia (double vision)
  • due to weakness in the muscles of the neck, sufferers may also experience a tendency for their heads to fall backward.

After a year, if the above-mentioned symptoms are left undiagnosed, the severity of the condition will escalate, causing patients to experience:

  • a greater sense of weakness in the lower back and the limbs
  • the arms will suffer from the greatest degree of weakness, the state of which will worsen after physical activities
  • it should be noted that pregnant women may either experience notable, subtle or no ill effects of newer symptoms

If the above symptoms are experienced, you may have a condition called myasthenia gravis.

Myasthenia gravis
Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease that gradually causes skeletal muscle weakness. Skeletal muscles are connected to bones and contain striations (striated muscles) or bands. Myasthenia gravis causes speedy fatigue and loss of strength. However, this fatigue diminishes and improves after rest.

If left untreated, this condition can become a medical crisis where the breathing muscles of the patient become affected. This will lead to respiratory failure. Other complications include pneumonia, choking and food aspiration.

You’re at risk if:
Myasthenia gravis usually affects men in later life, roughly around the age of 50. Women may be affected by the disease between their 20s and 40s.

Cause/risk factors:
Myasthenia gravis occurs when communication between nerves and muscles is interrupted. The point of disruption is called the neuromuscular junction, where the nerve cells connect with the muscles they control.

When a patient sufferers from myasthenia gravis, nerve endings that produce acetylcholine, a substance that is released when impulses travel down the nerve, become the point of attack by antibodies produced by the body’s own immune system.

Don’t ignore the signs
Suffering from one or two of any of the above-mentioned symptoms may not necessarily mean that you have a disease, but bear in mind that ignoring mild symptoms, particularly if they have been present for a lengthy period of time, is potentially dangerous. Consult your doctor for diagnosis.

Sources: Health24 (; Essortment (; eMedicinehealth (; eMedicine (; webMD (; Wikipedia (; Medicinenet (; (; MayoClinic (; FamilyDoctor (; (; Genetic Health (; Mental Health (; Wrong Diagnosis (; Thyroid-info (

André van Wyk, Health24


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