Last updated: Oct 05, 2010
Chris Fanning
Our bodies have an amazing capacity to freak us out. Maybe its a twitch that youre sure means multiple sclerosis. Or a little mark that must be cancer. You could Google symptoms for days—and now your pulse is racing, so you can look that up, too. Unless you have a heart attack first...Whoa! Step away from the keyboard. Most twitches, bumps, and pops are actually harmless. Heres when to see a doctor—and when to just relax.

Scary symptom: Skin tags

Whats up with that?
These floppy little nodules, which are usually flesh-toned but occasionally darker, typically develop in spots where skin rubs against skin or clothing, like under the arms, around the neck, under the breasts, or even on the eyelids. Its not entirely clear why some people are more prone to them than others, although they may run in families. The good news is, theyre virtually never cancerous and can be easily removed by a dermatologist.

See your doctor find a growth that is hard, rough, or darker or redder than flesh-toned. It could be a wart, a form of keratosis, or possibly even skin cancer.

Scary symptom: Red skin spots

Whats up with that?
Those little, round, bright-red spots and bumps on your skin (more common if your complexion is fair and youre over 40) are likely superficial blood vessels that havent been reabsorbed into the skin. “Its normal,” says David Bank, MD, director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic, and Laser Surgery in Mt. Kisco, New York. “The body naturally makes new blood vessels and takes others away.

But as we age, more blood vessels are made than absorbed, and thats when we get these little red spots.” Technically, theyre known as cherry hemangiomas or angiomas, and theyre nothing to worry about, Dr. Bank confirms.

See your doctor want to have them removed (a dermatologist can do this with laser treatments). But if you find a spot thats asymmetrical; is changing in size, shape, or color; begins itching or bleeding; or looks totally different from any other spot on your body, consult a dermatologist to make sure its not cancerous.

Chris Fanning
Scary symptom: Hand tremors

Whats up with that?
Shaky hands (especially after age 40) can be a family quirk. They can also be a sign that your blood sugars dipping and you need a snack with some protein. But very often theyre simply a symptom of stress or anxiety, says Jill Grimes, MD, a family practitioner in Austin, Texas.

This kind of shaking can get more pronounced if youre also drinking or eating anything containing caffeine, or if youre taking medication that contains stimulants (such as cold remedies or appetite suppressants) or some types of medications for attention deficit disorder or thyroid disease. Benign tremors usually go away on their own once youve eaten or cut back on the stimulants, or when your stress has subsided.

See your doctor if...your tremors persist. She may prescribe a beta-blocker, a type of blood pressure medication that can steady your hands by blocking the stress response. Shaking that affects only one hand, especially when youre not using it, could point to something more worrying, like Parkinsons disease. Shaky hands accompanied by weight loss, a racing heart, and a change in bowel habits often signal an overactive thyroid.

Scary symptom: Eye floaters

Whats up with that?
Inside your eyeball is a gel-like substance made up of water, collagen, and hyaluronic acid. Occasionally, especially as we age, pieces of collagen clump together, casting shadows on the retina that show up as dots, squiggly lines, or other odd shapes in your vision. “A floater can be annoying, but its harmless,” says Elliott Myrowitz, OD, MPH, chief of optometric services at the Wilmer Eye Institute and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

See your doctor if...a floater appears with light flashes or blurs or distorts your vision, which can mean that the gel in the eyeball is tugging on the retina. If the retina rips a bit as the gel tugs on it, Myrowitz says, “that could lead to a detached retina. The sooner such a rip is discovered, the easier it is to repair.”

Scary symptom: Eyelid twitches

Whats up with that?
Blame it on stress, fatigue, too much time spent staring at your computer, excess caffeine—even alcohol. Alone or in combination, any of these can provoke muscle spasms in the upper or lower lids. Twitches usually stop on their own, but if theyre really bothersome, try warm compresses to relax the muscles, or artificial tears (because dry eye can also lead to twitching), Myrowitz says. Switching to decaf couldnt hurt, either.

See your doctor have a twitch that lasts more than a few weeks, which may be a sign that the eyes surface or membrane is irritated. In rare cases, twitches may completely close your eyes or come with twitching in your mouth, too, in which case you should see your doctor to rule out a neurologic condition.

Scary symptom: Easy bruising

Whats up with that?
Some of us are just naturally prone to black-and-blue marks. But consider, too, how much aspirin, ibuprofen, or other NSAIDs youre taking. They inhibit blood clotting, which can make people bruise more easily, Dr. Bank says. Another culprit: Father Time. Collagen protects our blood vessels from breaking and bleeding into the skin, which is what a bruise is. “But by the time we reach our 40s and 50s, age and sun damage have weakened this shock absorber, so it takes less impact to get a bruise,” Dr. Bank explains.

See your doctor if...unexplained bruises appear suddenly, which may be an early sign of a blood disorder such as leukemia (cancer of the blood-forming tissues).

Scary symptom: Popping joints

Whats up with that?
“Sounds by themselves shouldnt be a problem,” says Nathan Wei, MD, director of The Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland. If youre in your 30s or 40s, most of the snapping and popping you may hear is likely the sound of ligaments or tendons sliding across the joints. Even noisy knees and ankles are typically the result of wear and tear on the cartilage and soft tissues. If the noises irk you, Dr. Wei recommends that you stretch regularly and, if osteoarthritis runs in your family, ask your doctor about glucosamine and chondroitin supplements to slow the deterioration of your cartilage.

See your doctor have redness, swelling, pain, or reduced mobility along with popping joints; these can be signs of a ligament or tendon injury. Osteoarthritis could also be to blame, especially if you have a family history of it or if youre a runner who averages more than 30 miles a week: Research suggests this puts you at increased risk. If youre over 50, popping alone may be a sign of osteoarthritis.

Scary symptom: Heart palpitations

Whats up with that?
Much of the time, occasional, fleeting palpitations are just a side effect of medication: Antihistamines, decongestants, antidepressants, and thyroid meds all can set your heart aflutter. So can stress and anxiety, especially if youre self-medicating with alcohol, cigarettes, or caffeine. “Often, its not so much the stress than what youre taking to cope with the stress,” Dr. Grimes notes.

See your doctor have any unusual heart symptoms, including palpitations. “If youre having brand-new palpitations or experiencing them in patterns youve never noticed before—especially along with other symptoms, like shortness of breath with exertion—they could be signs of heart-valve disease or arrhythmias,” Dr. Grimes says. “But the vast majority of the time theyre nothing to worry about.”