No symptoms, no problem? Think again. Some of the most dangerous diseases are symptomless. Beware of these stealthy conditions.
It’s often called the “silent disease” as it has no indicators. “Many people may have hypertension for years without knowing it, which is why it’s so dangerous,” says Dr Stan Moloabi, Executive Healthcare Manager at the Government Employees Medical Scheme.
If your blood pressure is extremely high, you may get severe headaches, chest pain, and dizzy spells. Other symptoms include fatigue, vision problems, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, and frequent nosebleeds.
The only way to know you have hypertension is with a blood pressure test. Even if you don’t have any symptoms or risk factors, you should get tested every one to two years, advises Dr Moloabi. If you have diabetes, heart disease, or kidney problems, you must have your blood pressure checked at least once a year.
According to Diabetes South Africa (DSA), about 90% of all people with diabetes are Type 2. And many of these cases go undiagnosed as there are very few warning signs. Symptoms may include dry mouth, excessive thirst and urination, fatigue, blurred vision, and slow wound healing. As the symptoms can be subtle and develop gradually, many people ignore them.
“It takes on average seven years for a person to get diagnosed with diabetes for the first time,” says Dr Larry Distiller, founder and managing director of the Centre for Diabetes and Endocrinology in Johannesburg. “Sadly, about 30% of people have already developed complications by the time they’re diagnosed.”
This highlights the importance of early diagnosis. Get screened for diabetes every year if you’re aged 35 and over, overweight, have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or a family history of the condition. “A simple finger-prick test at your local pharmacy or clinic can diagnose the strong likelihood that you may have diabetes within a minute,” says DSA.
There are no symptoms linked to this type of cancer in its early stage, but once in its advanced stage, you may experience pain in your pelvis, an unpleasant vaginal discharge, and abnormal vaginal bleeding. As the cancer progresses and becomes invasive, you may also experience leg and back pain, blood in your urine, and bleeding from your rectum.
Fortunately, cervical cancer can be prevented with regular Pap smears – a screening designed to pick up cervical changes before they become cancerous. The earlier pre-cancer is found, the higher your chances for successful treatment and survival.
Women aged 21 to 65 should have a Pap smear every three years, advises Cape Town-based fertility specialist, Dr Sascha Edelstein.
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), one in four people diagnosed with lung cancer show no symptoms of the disease. Symptoms usually only manifest when the cancer has advanced.
Signs to look out for include a chronic dry cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and hoarseness. The trouble is that many of these symptoms are misidentified for other conditions like bronchitis. Lung cancer is often identified incidentally when a chest X-ray is performed for another reason.
There’s no way to prevent lung cancer, but you can reduce your risk by not smoking. If you’re a smoker or former smoker, go for an annual CT lung scan, recommends NCI. This test has been shown to reduce lung cancer deaths by 20%.
This eye disease causes damage to the optic nerve from an abnormal increase of pressure in the eye. It’s the third leading cause of blindness worldwide, and is often called “the blinding disease” or “thief of sight” as it develops without any obvious symptoms. In fact, 50% of people in the developed world and 90% in developing countries don’t know they have it, according to the South African Glaucoma Society (SAGS).
Glaucoma progresses slowly and silently over the years, so by the time you recognise any symptoms, the damage to the optic nerve may already be very advanced. Symptoms to keep an eye out for, include severe eye pain (usually with nausea and vomitting), headaches, eye redness, blurred or cloudy vision, and seeing halo-like glows around bright lights.
The best way to protect your sight from glaucoma is to go for regular eye tests. This is especially important if someone in your family has glaucoma. “If you’re over 40, you should have your eyes tested every two years, and every year once over the age of 60,” recommends SAGS. It’s also a good idea to get checked out for glaucoma if you’re diabetic. The risk for glaucoma is twice as high in diabetics as in non-diabetics.