Identifying Symptoms of Critical Illness

While signs of critical illness can at times be unmistakable, with an elderly man perhaps clutching his chest, clearly in the grip of a heart attack, or suddenly becoming unresponsive as the result of a stroke, sometimes symptoms of life-threatening problems can begin much more subtly.

At Creighton University, students working to attain their online Master of Public Health degree will learn how to identify the health problems and needs of a defined community and to implement public health programs to address those needs. An important part of public health is sharing information. Alerting community members about early warning signs of critical illness is an example of the type of information sharing that can make a significant impact on how people evaluate their health and decide whether or not they need to seek emergency care.

To be in a position to help such individuals, it’s important to have an understanding of how subtle the signs of trouble may be. Following are some symptoms that can portend serious problems:

Soreness in the lower leg – Whether you’ve been working nonstop on a report at your desk or traveling across the Atlantic in a plane, if one of your legs suddenly feels sore, the cause could be something more serious than a cramped muscle. Rather, this could be a sign of a blood clot. One way to possibly spot this is to see if the leg hurts if you flex your toes upward in what is called “Homans’s sign.” Even if the leg doesn’t hurt after this maneuver, however, if you notice swelling and the area is hot and red, assume the worst and seek medical care as soon as you can. You want to catch a clot before it makes its way into your bloodstream and possibly causes a much more serious problem.1

Noisy breathing – Any issues with labored breathing can be serious. If someone is making a high-pitched whistling sound, particularly as they breathe out, they are wheezing and should get this immediately checked out. Wheezing may be caused by anything from allergy or asthma to pneumonia or bronchitis. Fever, shortness of breath, and yellow or green mucous may indicate a case of pneumonia brewing, which needs to be promptly treated.

Fever above 101 degrees – While mild fever is common, if it is above 101 degrees and you also have diarrhea or are vomiting profusely, seek medical care immediately. Mental changes together with a fever may point to meningitis, while high fever combined with shortness of breath could mean pneumonia, as noted above. A high fever together with lower back pain could indicate a kidney infection. Any high fever warrants medical attention.2

Chest pain – Whether you’ve just had a vigorous workout or are sitting quietly, even mild chest pain is something that should be promptly looked into, particularly if you are also experiencing other symptoms such shortness of breath, nausea, sweating or feelings of pressure in the chest. Chest pain that emerges after strenuous activity could be heart-related or indicate that a blood clot is traveling into your lung. Either condition requires emergency care.

Limb weakness – Arms or legs that suddenly feel weak, particularly on one side of the body, can portend a stroke. Numbness in the face is also cause for worry. Other signs of a stroke may include a severe headache, speech or comprehension problems, feelings of confusion, dizziness, trouble with balance and difficulty walking. The good news today is that if clot-busting agents are promptly administered within the first four and a half hours of such signs emerging, it may be possible to reverse a stroke and lessen chances of long-term impact.

If you would like to put yourself in a position to help ensure that such serious health signs get the attention they need, consider enrolling in the online Master of Public Health program at Creighton University. Request more information here.