10 Secrets Your Skin Reveals
From Lupis and Diabetes to Shingles and Hodgkins, the epidermis can offer clues to serious illness. Check for these signs and diagnose yourself early.
1. CRACKED LIPS: Severely dry lips that never seem to heal, no matter how often you apply lip balm, are a hallmark symptom of Sjögren’s syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disease in which a person’s white blood cells attack the moisture-producing glands in the body. (It also can cause fatigue, joint pain and digestive problems.) Early diagnosis and treatment are critical to preventing complications. So if your lips are persistently dry and cracked, see your doctor.
2. RED FACE: About 30 percent of people with lupus develop a “butterfly rash” on the face, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. The rash is symmetrical, appearing over the bridge of the nose and cheeks. (Think of the nose as the body of the butterfly and the cheeks as the wings.) Note: Facial redness also is a symptom of rosacea, a chronic skin condition. See your internist or dermatologist for a proper diagnosis.
3. THINNING EYEBROWS: It’s not uncommon for eyebrows to thin as you get older, but thinning of the outer third of the eyebrows is a late-stage symptom of hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone. Early signs include fatigue, constipation, weight gain and dry skin.) Your doctor can perform a simple blood test to determine whether you have the disease.
4. STREAKS UNDER NAILS: Acral lentiginous melanoma, a type of skin cancer, can appear as a dark, narrow stripe or streak under a nail—most often the thumb or big toe. This cancer tends to progress quickly, so if you notice this symptom, see a doctor right away.
5. BROWN ARMPITS: Thick, brown, velvety skin in the creases and folds around the underarms, groin and neck—a skin condition known as acanthosis nigricans—can be an early warning sign for type 2 diabetes. Other symptoms may include fatigue, blurry vision, cuts and bruises that are slow to heal, increased hunger, increased thirst and frequent urination. The American Diabetes Association recommends routine screening for type 2 diabetes beginning at age 45, especially if you are overweight.
6. PAIN AND BURNING: Shingles often starts out as burning, tingling and/or numbness—typically on one side of the chest or back. After a few days, a rash appears in the same area, and the rash soon turns into painful blisters. See your doctor right away; antiviral medicines can reduce the intensity and duration of the symptoms, but they are most effective when taken within three days of the rash appearing. A shingles vaccine is available for people aged 60 and older.
7. BREAST CHANGES: Redness and thickening of the skin of the breast could indicate inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), a rare but aggressive form of the disease. The breast also may feel warm to the touch and heavy compared with the other breast. It may also be tender and painful or itchy. If you experience any of these symptoms, see your doctor immediately. Note: IBC is often mistaken for a breast infection and treated with antibiotics, but if the symptoms don’t subside in seven to 10 days, tests should be done to look for cancer.
8. DARK LINES ON THE PALM: A deepening of the pigment in the creases of the palms or the soles of the feet is one of the first symptoms of the adrenal disorder Addison’s disease. Hyperpigmentation also may appear around other skin folds, scars, lips and pressure points (such as knees or knuckles). Blood tests, X-rays and other tests can help your doctor determine whether Addison’s disease or another medical condition is causing the symptoms.
9. PERSISTENT ITCHY RASH: Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH)—clusters of small, ferociously itchy blisters that typically show up on the elbows, knees, buttocks, lower back, scalp or back of the neck—is a classic symptom of celiac disease, or an allergy to gluten. It is diagnosed through blood tests, a skin biopsy and a direct immunofluorescence test, in which the skin is stained with a dye that shows the presence of specific antibody deposits.
10. ITCHINESS WITHOUT RASH: Itchiness can have many causes, but when there’s no accompanying rash, it may be pruritus, one of the first symptoms of Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In fact, this skin sign (which frequently appears on the lower legs) is known as “the Hodgkin’s itch.” Another symptom of both types of lymphoma is swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, collarbone or groin. A physical exam, blood tests and perhaps a biopsy will help determine if you have the disease. —CAROL BIALKOWSKI