Updated 03 October 2016

7 potentially deadly symptoms you should never ignore

These seven symptoms may indicate a potentially life-threatening situation, and you should immediately seek medical attention if you experience any of them.


All of us don’t feel well from time to time, and you generally know your runny nose is a sign of the flu, or that your shortness of breath is caused by exercise.

But there are certain symptoms you should never ignore. While accurate data is not available for South Africa, the Centre for Disease Control in the USA reports that 136 million people visit an emergency room each year. 12% of these patients have symptoms severe enough to warrant hospitalisation.

Read: What is a migraine?

It’s therefore important to know which symptoms can indicate a potentially life-threatening situation. We take a look at seven of the potentially most deadly symptoms you should never ignore:

1. A sudden intense headache

Most of us occasionally experience headaches, but a sudden pain, unlike any headache you’ve had before, could be reason for concern. It may be a ruptured aneurysm, which can cause blood to be released into the spaces around the brain. According to research from the University College of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, this situation is life-threatening, with a 50% risk of death. This condition is called subarachnoid haemorrhage.

Sudden headaches can also indicate meningitis or a brain tumour. Go to the emergency room if it occurs right after activities such as weightlifting or jogging, or if it is accompanied by problems with vision, the US National Library of Medicine recommends.

What else it could be: intracranial pressure, a migraine or shingles

2. Sudden chest pain

An intense discomfort or a feeling of heaviness or pressure on the chest can be the start of a heart attack, research from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute indicates. You should especially get medical attention if it’s accompanied by pain running down the arm, sweating or shortness of breath. Statistics show that about 130 heart attacks and 240 strokes occur daily in South Africa, and as a result 2010 people die of heart disease every day.

What else it could be: gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

3. Shortness of breath

According to the Mayo Clinic an unexpected shortness of breath can be a sign of pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung), and this warrants emergency medical attention. It can also prevent blood from reaching your lungs. It might also be a sign of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, asthma or pneumonia. In these cases it’s important to get a diagnosis so that effective treatment can start immediately.

What else it could be: anxiety

Read: Calcium tabs up heart-attack risk

4. Sudden decline in cognitive functioning

If you have a sudden change in your thinking skills or personality, it can be a sign of a brain tumour or bleeding in the brain. Research from the Mayo Clinic indicates a stroke is another possibility, especially if speech is also affected. Get immediate medical attention if you have problems with concentration, are suddenly confused or have a general feeling of disorientation.

What else it could be: Psychiatric or cognitive disorders, or abnormal blood pressure, low blood sugar and dehydration.

5. High and persistent fever

Experts agree that a fever of more than 39 degrees Celsius, warrants a trip to the emergency room. Fever is the body’s way to fight infections, so a high fever might indicate severe illnesses, such as cellulitis (a bacterial infection of the skin and tissues) and kidney or urinary tract infections. In children, an extremely high fever should always be taken seriously, especially if it’s accompanied by persistent vomiting, a refusal to eat or drowsiness.

What else it could be: influenza

6. Sudden abdominal pain

An aortic aneurysm (swelling) or rupture might cause sudden abdominal pain. According to the National Health Service in the UK, “A ruptured aneurysm can cause massive internal bleeding, which is usually fatal". About eight out of 10 people die before they reach the hospital or don’t survive surgery.

What else it could be: gallstones, irritable bowel or appendicitis

7. Changes in vision

Any change in vision can be a sign of a serious disorder. Seeing bright spots or flashes usually indicates a migraine, but it can also be a sign of retinal detachment. The Mayo Clinic suggests that permanent vision loss is a real possibility in such instances, and that one should take immediate action. 

What else it could be: migraine

Read more:

Brave 2-year-old survives rare surgeries to remove tumour

When a common throat infection in kids could be rheumatic fever

What is eye disease?


Live healthier

Quit smoking »

How to beat triggers that make you crave a cigarette

You need to learn how to beat the behavioural, environmental and emotional triggers if you want to succeed in quitting smoking.

Hygiene »

Your showerhead may be bathing you in germs

You probably think showering will wash away dirt and germs, but your showerhead might dump nasty bacteria on you instead that may cause lung infections.