What your skin shows
As your body’s largest organ, your skin is a window into your health. “All of our organ systems are related,” says Dr Whitney High, associate professor of dermatology. What’s going on in your body sometimes affects your skin – and vice versa. The thing is, doctors don’t need special equipment to see your skin, so it can be very telling when it comes to what’s happening inside the body, to your health. Here are some strange skin problems that could be a sign of a serious disease.
You notice lots of skin tags popping up
A few of these skin growths here or there is normal, but numerous skin tags that begin popping up could indicate type 2 diabetes. They’re spurred on by insulin-like growth factor 1, a protein involved in diabetes that stimulates skin overgrowth, says Dr Rachel Reynolds, a dermatologist with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Other signs of type 2 include increased thirst, slow healing wounds, and increased hunger.
You’re breaking out like crazy
Adult acne is so common (here’s why – and how best to treat it), but when it’s a fairly new development, pay attention. It’s a skin change that could be a sign of a serious disease; skin changes like acne can be a symptom of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal imbalance that affects 10 million women worldwide. When a woman’s body makes excess “male” hormones called androgens, it’s often accompanied by an increase in acne. Your doctor may suspect PCOS if you have acne along with irregular periods or acne that flares up just before your period, says Dr Reynolds.
Even if PCOS isn’t behind your breakouts, your acne may be saying something else about your body. Here are 12 sneaky reasons you’re having an acne breakout.
You’ve developed a weird rash
Something benign – such as a new laundry detergent or metal buttons on your pants – can be behind a new rash. Your dermatologist can help you figure out what to avoid and do a patch tests if needed. Tick bites can also be responsible. Five different types of tick diseases cause tell-tale skin rashes, from the bullseye of Lyme to small pink spots dotting wrists, forearms and ankles. Watch out for such skin changes if you’ve been camping, hiking, or spending time outdoors in known tick areas.
You have a weird rash, part II
Starting a new medication always comes with potential reactions. One serious problem: an allergy called “drug reaction with eosinophilia and systemic symptoms” or DRESS syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition marked by a rash and an inflammation of the liver, heart, and lungs. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology notes that while “almost any drug could cause DRESS,” the ones commonly associated with this are antibiotics, and gout and seizure medication. The Academy also states that this rash can appear two to eight weeks after starting the med. Watch out if you have a rash accompanied by fever or swelling of lymph nodes.
You’re so, so itchy
If you have dry skin – especially in the winter months – you may be used to feeling itchy. But when a good moisturiser provides no relief, it could a skin problem that is a sign of a serious disease. Itchiness can be caused by some cancers like leukaemia and lymphoma, as well as liver disease and kidney failure. If itching is all over your body, is severe, comes out of nowhere, or is so bad you’re losing sleep because you’re so uncomfortable, talk to your doctor, says Dr Reynolds. Itchiness with night sweats, fevers and unexplained weight loss are other red flag symptoms, she says.
There’s a new freckle on your face
Early melanomas may appear like a new freckle for the first weeks or months, says Dr High. But if it’s a malignant form of skin cancer, the spot won’t stay freckle-like for long – it will keep growing. It’s the “E” in the ABCDE’s of skin cancer, for “evolving,” indicating a mole that changes in characteristics such as size, shape and colour. Suspicious moles need to be checked out by a dermatologist. But don’t stop looking at your skin just because you visited a dermatologist. Give yourself regular at-home skin checks, remembering to check your entire body including your palms, soles and even between your toes.
There are tender red bumps under your skin
While the gut and skin may not seem all that connected, they are. Conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can sometimes affect your skin. Painful red nodules may appear on your legs; they’ll also feel deep in the surface of the skin, explains Dr Reynolds. The condition is called erythema nodosum and may appear during a flare-up of symptoms, such as persistent diarrhoea or bloody stool. Blood in your poop may sound frightening, but it’s one of those health symptoms that can turn out to be harmless.
Your skin is sweaty and ruddy
Unless you’re relaxing in a sauna or living the tropics, this may be a sign of an overactive thyroid. In people who have hyperthyroidism, their metabolism is revved up. This can translate to being hot and flushed (particularly when no one else in the room is). Your doctor should question you about other symptoms that could signal thyroid dysfunction, like weight loss or difficulty sleeping.
Your lower legs are swollen and red
When someone is suffering from congestive heart failure, their weakened heart struggles to keep the blood moving against the pull of gravity. As a result, the blood can pool in your legs, explains Dr High. Seeing deep lines after taking off your socks is another sign, he says. That said, congestive heart failure is most likely to affect the elderly; if you’re a young person and have sock lines, your socks just might be too small.
Think of the obvious first
Though skin problems can be a sign of a more serious illness, especially when saddled with dry skin or itchiness, don’t jump to a worst-case scenario, says Dr High. If you’re itchy, first try a moisturiser. If you get hives, take an antihistamine or try a hydrocortisone cream. Then if the problem doesn’t clear up quickly, it may be time to see your doctor.
When you should definitely see a doctor
Not every skin change is cause for alarm. But if you have new rashes that don’t go away in a week or two or are accompanied by pain, fevers, puss collection, or chills, or they coincide with other symptoms mentioned, see your doctor, advises Dr Reynolds.
And also consider your diet, here are the 8 worst foods for skin that dermatologists avoid.
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