Updated 29 January 2018

5 ‘silent killers’ – know the subtle symptoms

Your shortness of breath, fatigue or incontinence might be subtle signs of a deadly disease . . .

We often hear of stories of people suddenly developing a deadly disease. In a lot of cases subtle symptoms are present, and even medical experts sometimes miss these clues.

A subtle symptom like for example incontinence can be indicative of a deadly disease, especially when it’s experienced in combination with other symptoms such as abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding. This could be an sign of ovarian cancer in older women.

Let’s look at five potentially fatal diseases and how to spot their subtle symptoms.

Read: Know your risk for ovarian cancer, and its warning signs

1. Ovarian cancer

Research from the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance shows this deadly disease strikes one out of every 75 women. What's scary is that many women have the disease without realising it. The five-year survival rate is only 46%, and this can drop even further if the cancer is not caught in its early stages. The symptoms of this “silent killer” are often so subtle that even doctors don’t pick it up. A history and regular testing (especially for women over the age of 50) are vitally important. Signs to look out for are: abdominal and pelvic pain, urinary incontinence, vaginal bleeding and a bloated sensation.

2. Heart disease

You might think you know the classic signs of a heart attack: chest pain or discomfort, sweating and a pain in the arms. But according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, especially women experience far subtler symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea and fatigue. If you have a history of cardiovascular disease in your family, you are at a higher risk and should play close attention to these symptoms.

3. Lupus

Lupus is “a chronic, autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body (skin, joints, and/or organs inside the body)”, according to the Lupus Organisation of America. In essence, the body attacks the tissue of several organs, commonly the brain, in the same way it fights off deadly diseases. Lupus is incurable and doctors can only treat the symptoms. It’s difficult to diagnose because of the slow progression of symptoms. A so-called “butterfly rash” can appear on the nose or cheeks, joints can be painful and fatigued, breathing can be painful; other common symptoms are hair loss, abdominal pain and headaches. If you have any of these symptoms it would be wise to get yourself checked out.

Read: Lupus

4. Diabetes

With so much education about the dangers of diabetes it’s almost unthinkable that it can go undiagnosed. But the symptoms for especially type 2 diabetes can be so subtle and seemingly harmless that complications may develop without people realising they have the disease. Research from the Mayo Clinic indicates more than eight million people in the United States have undiagnosed diabetes. Commons symptoms to look out for include: excessive thirst and increased urination, fatigue and weight loss.

5. Motor Neuron Disease

Motor Neuron Disease is a neurological disorder where the nerves cells deteriorate to such an extent that they become permanently damaged. In progressive stages patients lose all muscle ability and ultimately die. Research shows muscle weakness, twitches, cramps and slurred and nasal speech are early signs of the disease.

Read more: 

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Ask the Expert

Incontinence Expert

Dr Prenevin Govender completed his MBChB at the University of Cape Town in 2001. He obtained his Fellowship of the College of Urologists in 2009 and graduated with distinction for a Masters in Medicine from the University of Cape Town in 2010. His special interests include laparoscopic, pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence surgery. He consults full-time at Life Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont.

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