Washington Evening Journal
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Neighbors Growing Together | Apr 16, 2014

Age plays important role in determining urgency of doctor visit

Feb 24, 2014

HOUSTON, Texas — When you’re not feeling well, at what point is it time to go see a doctor? It all depends on age, according to a Baylor College of Medicine expert.

“Whether or not to see a doctor when you’re not feeling well varies by age, because in older adults, symptoms that pop up may more commonly be signs of something serious,” according to Dr. Jeffrey Steinbauer, professor of family and community medicine at Baylor.

Steinbauer notes that in older adults, symptoms of disease become more subtle around the age of 70, so they may not experience as much pain or fever than others. This is commonly known as atypical presentation of disease.

He says the following symptoms in older adults, 65 to 70 years or older, warrant a visit to a primary care physician:

• Not feeling well or having a persistent new symptom over a period of a few days

• New onset of pain, such as a severe headache

• Chest pain, shortness of breath, passing out or heart palpitations

For younger adults, those between the ages of 20 and 60, Steinbauer suggests waiting to see a physician because the problems are usually self-limiting or not as serious.

“For example, if somebody has a new problem with foot or ankle pain, unless there’s been an acute injury where you think it could be a fracture, if there’s just soreness, watching that for a while and taking over-the-counter treatments would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do,” said Steinbauer.

Symptoms such as respiratory problems, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea can be treated at home for a few days to see if the symptoms get better before consulting with a physician.

However, the following signs, even in younger adults, indicate a visit to a primary care physician sooner rather than later: fainting, loss of consciousness, the worst headache of your life, a new onset of chest pain with shortness of breath, and severe abdominal pain that results in inability to eat, vomiting or fever.

Steinbauer also notes the following areas where it may be important for younger adults to see their primary care physician:

• Symptoms so severe that they result in a loss of daily function for over a period of two days

• Persistent fever of 102 or more for more than 24 hours – this indicates a more severe infection

• If you have a chronic illness such as asthma or diabetes

When it comes to burns and cuts, whether you should see a physician depends on the level of severity. For example, if a cut causes tissue to be cut open or is more than three-fourths of an inch, consider seeing a physician. Third degree burns, those that are deep into the tissue and result in a loss of feeling in the area of the burn, should also be seen by a physician.

For sleep issues, Steinbauer suggests following the common sleep hygiene tips such as no screen time and having a sleep routine before seeing a physician. If problems persist, it’s time to see a physician to determine if there’s a bigger issue such as sleep apnea. Steinbauer suggests not using sleep medications for more than a few weeks because they can be habit forming.

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