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Gastrointestinal troubles don’t make for great dinner table conversation, but that doesn’t mean you should keep silent about them. These issues may signal something serious. John R. Hyatt, M.D., a gastroenterologist on the medical staff at Baylor Medical Center at Garland, explains what some common symptoms could mean and when you should seek medical care.
With any symptoms, Dr. Hyatt points out that it’s important to listen to your body and to consider your age and any other health problems. If you suspect a problem, trust your instincts and talk to your doctor.
An occasional, temporary drop in the frequency of your bowel movements often will respond to increasing fiber in your diet or taking an over-the-counter laxative. If your bowels don’t become more regular, talk to your doctor. A simple lab test can determine if low thyroid function or high calcium levels could be to blame, and your doctor can likely make recommendations. An acute change in your bowel habits should definitely be checked out. Testing is especially important if bloating and cramping accompany your constipation.
Loose stools lasting for several days likely stem from an infection and will resolve on their own or with antibiotics. If you experience pain, bleeding or fever with diarrhea, or diarrhea that wakes you, see your doctor. Chronic diarrhea lasting more than two weeks warrants attention. It could signal irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or a chronic infection.
Periodic gas and bloating are mostly just embarrassing. If your symptoms are problematic, your doctor can recommend foods that don’t cause gas. Bothersome gas and bloating might be signs of lactose or wheat intolerance.
Once-in-a-while heartburn should respond to over-the-counter antacids or medications. For chronic heartburn see your doctor, particularly if you are over age 50. That’s when your risk increases for Barrett’s esophagus, a precancerous condition.
Dr. Hyatt warns of certain alarm symptoms that warrant immediate attention: vomiting blood, food lodged after swallowing, black tarry stools, blood in the stool, and nausea, pain or abdominal distention when eating. But he emphasizes that you should see your doctor for any symptoms that worry you. If you have a serious condition, treating it early is usually best. And if you don’t, you’ll gain peace of mind, guidance on how to deal with your symptoms and improved quality of life.
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