Subtle signs that could be a serious health concern

Managing your health can be an anxiety-inducing affair, especially when healthcare costs are high and access to treatment can be obstructed. But that doesn’t make it any less important to regularly check in with your doctor to make sure you’re healthy. 

Additionally, you need to monitor your body for all kinds of changes as those fluctuations can give you vital information. For example, you can monitor your blood pressure for free at many pharmacies, or wear an activity tracker to look for patterns in your physical activity, heartbeat, and sleep. 

But the most powerful tool you have at your disposal is you and you ability to monitor changes in your body. Here are some subtle signs to look out for that could be a serious health concern.

Numb feet

Our feet are on the front line of our day-to-day life given that, for most of us, we need our feet to get us where we need to go. So if you ever notice any strange changes in them, you definitely don’t want to ignore them. Dr. Suzanne C. Fuchs, a podiatric foot and ankle surgeon, told me, “One subtle sign is numbness in your feet. Numbness in both feet is known as peripheral neuropathy. This is commonly caused by diabetes but could also be a side effect of chemotherapy or even alcoholism.” 

So if you know you have these other conditions, talk to your doctor about any strangeness in both feet. Additionally, Fuchs continued, “If you have numbness in only one foot this could mean a neuroma or inflammation of a nerve in the foot or due to a pinched nerve higher up in the ankle, leg or back.” Even if you just have coldness or pain, see your doctor — there’s no reason to live with it either.

Crunchy knees

Our knees are a complex work of art, allowing for an impressive range of motion and capacity for weight. But it’s important to be aware of any strange sounds or sensations in your knees as that can be an indication of real problems. 

“If you can hear or feel crunching in your knee when you go up stairs or get up from a squat, it is a bad sign, and means the cartilage under your knee cap is wearing out,” according to Dr. Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon. “This most often occurs in women and is the result of a condition called patellar malalignment. Women are predisposed to having this condition because of the way our lower extremities are naturally aligned in order to accommodate our child bearing pelvis.” 

You also many be prone to this if you do certain exercises. Bering continued, “If you do a lot of squats, box jumping, or stair climbing you might begin to notice this crunching. It might be painless at first, but then it will become painful and cause swelling. This will eventually lead to the development of arthritis in your knee.” So be mindful with those knees!

Stubborn pimples

Everyone gets pimples at some point in our lives, as much as we may hate it. Acne is most problematic for teenagers, but women of all ages still get pimples on occasion. And while that’s completely normal, having something that looks like a pimple but won’t go away is not. 

“A pimple that won’t go away is often how the most common cancer, Basal Cell Cancer, presents itself,” notes Dr. Jennifer T. Haley, a board certified dermatologist. “If you have a ‘pimple’ that lasts longer than a month, get to a board certified dermatologist for evaluation as it may just be the tip of the iceberg to something extending deeper.” 

That doesn’t mean that you need to freak out about it because it could be a variety of other things, too. But since there is a risk, definitely get it checked out.

Fingernail changes

Your fingernails can tell you a lot more about your health than you likely thought possible. If they’re normal and healthy looking, that’s a good sign and you have nothing to worry about. But if you notice changes in the color, texture, or strength of your nails, you might want to investigate further what the cause might be. 

For example, have your nails flattened, accompanied by concave divots? This is called koilonychia, and can indicate an iron deficiency as well as other issues. Are your nails white with only a narrow band at the top? That could be Terry’s Nails, which can be indicative of serious underlying concerns like liver disease and other organ problems. Do you have indented lines across your nails? That might be Beau’s Lines, which are associated with a host of ailments from uncontrolled diabetes to vascular disease. So if you notice anything off about your nails, go to your primary care physician and have them examined.

Gum recession

Dental health is much more important than a lot of people know. And it’s not just your teeth that you need to take care of, either — your gums also need TLC, often long before you realize it. 

Dr. April Patterson, a dentist in South Florida, told me, “You might think it’s something you couldn’t miss, but gum recession is so gradual and slow that you won’t know you have a problem until you do! Gum recession is a silent indicator of periodontal disease, and the endotoxins that cause it have been linked to heart disease as well as diabetes, in some studies.” That’s pretty serious!

The best way to make sure you don’t wind up with unchecked gum recession is by getting regular cleanings at the dentist. Patterson continued, “No matter how much you brush — or how hard — your toothbrush simply can’t reach far enough beneath your gums to clean up the accumulation of plaque, calculus, and tartar. So the bacteria will build up and can only be removed with unique instruments designed to go underneath your gums.” So getting a cleaning every six months is worth it in the long run.

Conversational changes

Some symptoms are easy to observe in yourself, but there are others that aren’t so much, such as mental health. So it’s important to be on the lookout for symptoms, which can subtle, in friends or family members. 

“Some subtle signs of a beginning psychiatric illness may include a significant and consistent change in the content and tone of an individual’s conversation style,” according to Dr. Drew Pate, a psychiatrist. “They may begin to frequently speak about things that others have not heard them speak about in the past. For example, they may express concerns that they are being followed or harassed by others or that they are involved in some sort of conspiracy known only to them or a select group.” And while this may seem innocuous at times, it can develop into something quite series if ignored.

You also want to be on the lookout for even more subtle shifts. Pate continued, “The tone of their conversation may also change reflecting changes in mood. They may begin to speak much more pessimistically about their lives or their future, or alternatively they may speak in more grandiose or expansive ways about new plans or ideas they have.” So if anything seems the least bit off, it’s time to check in with a mental health professional.

Sleep changes

According to the CDC, one in three Americans don’t get enough sleep at night. And while that’s bad news for a third of people here in the U.S., it’s not unusual or abnormal — it’s tough to balance sleep with demands from work, family, and friends. However, for other folks, changes in sleep patterns can be an indicator of other more serious problems. 

Kimberly Hershenson, a NYC-based therapist, has encountered these issues before. “Struggling to get out of bed and sleeping all day or having difficulty sleeping at night these are signs of a mental health issue,” she said. And that issue could be depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, or another condition that impacts healthy rest habits. So if you are observing changes in yourself regarding sleep, check in with your doctor to see if they can help.

Eye issues

Human beinsg rely on their eyesight for everything from driving to working and watching screens. And most of the time people don’t have to think to much about their eye health — it’s taken for granted that seeing won’t be a problem. However, eyes are not immune to aging, and are prone to wear and tear just like any other organ. While some symptoms are not of major concern, like thinning eyelashes, other symptoms are. 

Are you seeing spots, lines, or floaters? Did you lose peripheral vision? Are you having eye pain, or dryness with burning? Do you have unusual sensitivity to light or glare? If you have any of these, it could be a sign of something more serious.


People get rashes for a host of reasons, from allergic reactions to plants and cleansing products or skin conditions like psoriasis. And some rashes have a more serious cause. 

Dr. Faisal Tawwab, a physician in Florida, told me, “A rash appearing on the elbows, knees, back, and or scalp could be a symptom of Celiac disease. The rash, often dismissed as eczema affects 25 percent of all people with Celiac disease, even if they do not have any digestive symptoms.” 

This reaction is due to an adverse reaction to gluten, which is found in a variety of foods. Dr. Tawwab continued, “When gluten is consumed, the body releases an antibody called IgA, which attacks the intestines. Sometimes, this antibody gets caught in the blood vessels, causing a rash. For a proper diagnosis, the rash must be biopsied by a doctor.” So if you suspect you might have this disease, get your rash tested.

Weight gain or loss

Weight gain or loss that isn’t a result of intentional diet and exercise modifications can indicate some pretty serious health issues. “Unintentional excessive weight loss or weight gain are often signs of mental health issues,” according to Hershenson. “Food is sometimes used as an unhealthy coping skill in order to deal with issues of anxiety or depression.” So if your weight is fluctuating from changes in your eating, check in with your mental healthcare professional.

Weight gain or loss can also be a sign of digestive problems such as gastroparesis, or endocrine disorders such as diabetes and thyroid disorders. And because many of these diseases and conditions are serious, any unexplained weight changes merit a trip to the doctor.

Be attentive to changes

As long as you monitor your body and take notice of any changes, chances are you’ll notice anything concerning and catch it early. As intimidating as it can be to think about your health, you’ll definitely benefit from checking in regularly both with yourself and your doctor. Also, there will be times when what could be scary turns out to be nothing at all! 

So when it comes down to it, knowing is always better than not knowing, and ignoring symptoms won’t make them go away. It’s important, then, to talk to your doctor as soon as you notice anything out of the ordinary.