5 Symptoms That May Not Be What They Seem

Some symptoms—like sneezing, coughing, congestion—are pretty obvious signs of allergies or the common cold. But sometimes even the most familiar symptoms can actually be caused by something completely unexpected. Below are five common symptoms that may look like one thing but could be the result of an unrelated diagnosis.

Symptom #1: Cavities

What it appears to be: Tooth decay.
What it could indicate: Acid reflux.

If a trip to the dentist reveals you’re experiencing unusually heavy tooth decay, you may assume you’re simply prone to cavities or not doing a thorough job with your brushing and flossing. However, if your dentist rules out dietary factors (such as drinking lots of soda and eating lots of sugar and heavy carbohydrates) and you don’t have any hereditary issues to contend with, then it’s worth considering gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD.

GERD is a condition in which the barrier between your stomach and esophagus allows stomach acid to travel back up into the mouth, where it can strip your teeth’s enamel. In addition, GERD, and often the medications used to address its symptoms, can cause your mouth to be extremely dry. Without saliva to wash it away, bacteria and plaque (build-up) settle on your teeth, leading to decay and cavities.

If your dentist suspects acid reflux or GERD, you’ll need to see your primary care physician or a gastroenterologist to get a diagnosis and discuss treatment options. Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), medications that reduce the production of stomach acid, are popular; you can also make strategic dietary changes, such as avoiding spicy foods and items high in acid like tomato sauce and citrus juices. Fortunately, "When patients undergo treatment for reflux with their physicians, the decay [in their mouth] often goes away," says Danine Fresch Gray, DDS, of Clarendon Dental Arts in Arlington, Virginia.

Symptom #2: Frequent Urination

What it appears to be: A urinary tract infection (UTI).
What it could indicate: Menopause or multiple sclerosis.

When you suddenly find yourself needing to urinate every few hours or even more often, you could assume you have a urinary tract infection. But in fact, frequent urination can also be the sign of other, more serious, problems. One reason for a change in urination patterns is an overactive bladder, which can be caused by contractions of the bladder muscles that create an urge to void. According to the Mayo Clinic, this can result from a variety of conditions that can prevent the bladder from being able to empty properly, as well as from excessive weight that puts a strain on the bladder, as well as from hormonal changes due to menopause.

Neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis (MS) can also lead to frequent urination, due to central nervous system changes that interfere with proper communication with the bladder. Other causes of an overactive bladder can also include cystocele (bladder prolapse), or uterine prolapse in women. (Prolapse means that the organ drops, sags, or slips down in the body.)

Finally, bladder cancer is also a fairly common cause—and a worrisome one. That's why "Careful evaluation and diagnosis is important," says Alex Shteynshlyuger, MD, Director of Urology at New York Urology Specialists in New York City. He adds, "Once a diagnosis is established, effective treatment options are available. For example, for patients with overactive bladder, Botox injected in the bladder has proven to be an effective treatment option."

Symptom #3: Chest Pain

What it appears to be: Heart attack.
What it could indicate: A panic attack.

"When you think of chest pain, the first thought is usually of a heart attack or myocardial infarction. More common, though, particularly in young adults, is a panic attack," says Jared Heathman, MD, a psychiatrist with Your Family Psychiatrist in Houston, Texas. "Panic attacks cause chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, and a feeling of impending doom."

Since these symptoms can also occur with a heart attack, when in doubt, let the experts figure it out. "The differentiation is often first diagnosed in the emergency room, as symptoms of panic attacks can be the same as a heart attack," says Heathman. The good news is that most panic attacks can be treated with medication and relaxation techniques, such as meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises.

Symptom #4: Facial Rash or Breakouts

What it appears to be: Acne.
What it could indicate: Rosacea.

If you’ve noticed recently that the skin of your cheeks or nose often looks especially red with severe bumpy or pimply patches, and/or the blood vessels seem show through your skin, you may assume you’re experiencing acne.

While acne is not limited to teenagers and can strike adults of any age, if you’re over 30, a chronic skin condition called rosacea could be to blame, points out Mark Seraly, MD, a dermatologist who practices in Pennsylvania and is founder of DermatologistOnCall, which currently serves 32 states. Seraly says that rosacea can’t be cured, but it can be treated to improve your skin’s appearance.

If you suspect you have rosacea, you'll need to consult a dermatologist for a diagnosis and treatment plan. Prescription topical creams and oral medications can help lessen the inflammation and related bumps and redness. Some people also benefit from laser or light therapy to address the appearance of veins and other symptoms—rosacea can cause excess tissue to form on the nose, and lasers can help break it down.

Symptom #5: Thinning Hair

What it appears to be: A thyroid issue or an autoimmune condition.
What it could indicate: Vitamin deficiencies.

Sometimes thinning hair is caused by an underactive thyroid, which can slow the metabolism and cause hair follicles to be less healthy and to break more easily. Thinning hair can also be due to hormonal changes, such as those brought about by menopause, or an autoimmune condition such as lupus.

But if a visit to your physician and appropriate blood tests reveal that your thyroid and immune system are functioning properly, you may need to boost your vitamin levels to address the problem.

"It is our experience as a practicing endocrinologist [doctor specializing in hormonal issues] and internist that this condition is very often due to key vitamin deficiencies," say Arielle Levitan, MD, and Romy Block, MD, co-founders of Vous Vitamin, LLC, in Chicago and authors of The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear the Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health.

Vitamin deficiencies are treatable: "You can replete these deficiencies with appropriate doses and forms of iron [depending on your specific needs], paired with vitamin C for absorption, and with vitamin D in it's most active form (D3), along with a key B vitamin called Biotin [sometimes called vitamin B7 or vitamin H], which is a building block for hair..." explain Levitan and Block. The biggest challenge is being patient while waiting for the results, since it can take about three to six months before the new hair grows.

Get an Expert Diagnosis

If you're concerned about any symptoms you're dealing with, speak to your physician. Your doctor can help pinpoint what's going on—and work with you to develop a treatment plan that will address your discomfort.

Arielle Levitan, MD, reviewed this article.


"Bladder Problems." National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Accessed online May 12, 2016.

Block, Romy, MD, and Levitan, Arielle, MD. Vous Vitamin LLC. Email interview May 2, 2016.

Gray, Danine Fresch, DDS. Clarendon Dental Arts. Email interview May 2, 2016.

Heathman, Jared MD. Your Family Psychiatrist. Email interview May 2, 2016.

Seraly, Mark, MD. DermatologistOnCall. Email interview May 2, 2016.

Shteynshlyuger, Alex, MD. Email interview May 2, 2016.

"Overactive Bladder." Mayo Clinic. Sept. 24, 2014.

"Seeing Red? Why Ongoing Dermatology Care is Essential to Managing Rosacea." Dermatologist On Call. April 12, 2016.