Your biggest organ reveals important details about your overall health.
Your skin: As the old song goes, it keeps your insides in. It also gives clues about what’s going on underneath it.
“Your skin is a window into your body,” says Steven Mandrea, M.D., a dermatologist in Chicago. “It’s your largest organ, and it reflects your overall health status.”
When something’s going wrong on the inside, the first place it often shows up is on the outside. “If you’re overworked, run down, fatigued, your skin’s probably pale and dry,” Dr. Mandrea explains.
And if you’ve got any one of a number of health conditions, your dermatologist can often spot the problem before your family doctor can.
Here’s why: Your skin—all 20 square feet of it—actually forms its own microbiome. A complex system of bacteria and immune cells live on your skin and communicate with the inside and the outside world.
Your outer layer is your body’s first line of defense against invading toxins, and it communicates with your immune system to keep you healthy and strong. Skin may even help regulate blood pressure and keep digestion in balance, according to recent research.
So if you’ve got an itch or a rash or something else weird going on with your skin, it could be your body’s way of telling you to take a closer look. Most of the time, it’s nothing to worry about. But a skin condition that’s severe—or just doesn’t seem to go away with home treatment—is a signal to check in with an expert.
Here are some health secrets that your skin can’t hide from dermatologists.
Secret #1: An Allover Itch Can Signal Organ Trouble
If you’ve got an itch that you literally can’t scratch, pay attention. “It could be coming from the inside,” says Dr. Mandrea.
“If your itch is all over on your arms, legs, and back, or if it’s in a butterfly shape on your back that you just can’t reach, that triggers us to do an evaluation of possible causes.”
Among the causes of severe itching are anemia, liver or kidney problems, or even an internal cancer. “The good thing is that this may prompt a patient to take care of an overdue mammogram or colonoscopy,” Dr. Mandrea says.
Secret #2: Hair Loss in Women Could Mean a Hormonal Disorder
Dermatologists treat problems with your hair and nails too. One frequent complaint: Hair loss that goes on for months or even years. “It’s almost an epidemic among women,” says Dr. Mandrea.
In postmenopausal women, he says, it often turns out that their ratio of androgens (often referred to as “male” hormones, even though they’re present and play a role in both men and women) to estrogens (“female” hormones) increases. And when higher levels of androgens are circulating in women, hair loss is a common early tip-off.
The good news: This type of hair loss is often temporary. You may not regain your hair’s full volume, but there are many simple ways to make hair look instantly thicker. And for serious hair loss, dermatologists also have a number of treatment options to offer, including the topical solution minoxidil, hair transplants, and newer techniques such as platelet-rich plasma therapy (PRP).
With PRP, a small amount of your blood will be drawn, and a machine will separate the red blood cells and plasma. Your dermatologist will inject your own plasma—which is full of platelets that encourage growth—into your hair follicles. The procedure, Dr. Mandrea says, takes just 10 minutes or so, but it’s not a one-and-done deal. You’ll return for repeated injections on a set schedule based on your particular needs.
Unfortunately, in some cases, other health conditions might be at play. The American Academy of Dermatology counts some 30 diseases that can cause hair loss, including thyroid disease and anemia.
The first thing a dermatologist will do is test your blood to check hormone and thyroid levels, says Dr. Mandrea. They may also check for levels of ferritin, which shows how much iron your body is storing. If it’s low, that’s likely causing your hair loss.
“We can replenish your supplies with an iron supplement, and the shedding stops,” he explains. As always, before taking any new medications, let your doctor know about any prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, or supplements you take.
Secret #3: Unsightly Skin Growths May Be More than Age Spots
New skin growths are common in older age, and many are harmless. Skin tags, for example, are flesh-colored growths that look like a soft fold of skin. They’re rarely harmful, but if they frequently get caught on your clothes or jewelry, your doctor can remove them appropriately.
Another common issue: seborrheic keratoses, which are scaly, wart-like growths on your face, chest, shoulders, or back that vary in color from light tan to brown to black. “These are very common age-related growths, and they’re almost always benign,” Dr. Mandrea says.
Like skin tags, if seborrheic keratoses get irritated from your clothes, your doctor can remove them safely. “Often we’ll freeze them off with liquid nitrogen in the office,” Dr. Mandrea says.
The challenge: It can be difficult for a layperson to distinguish between harmless and harmful growths.
One sign you should call your doctor is a sudden breakout of multiple growths, Dr. Mandrea says. That could signal a potential problem with your internal health.
You should also make an appointment if a bump appears to be changing over time. Any growth on your body that changes in size, color, or shape could turn out to be melanoma, the most common type of skin cancer.
Secret #4: Cracked, Dry Skin Can Reveal a Serious Health Problem
This is something that hits almost everybody in the dead of winter. But if it lasts well into spring or if you don’t usually experience dry skin, this could be a sign of a more serious health problem.
“Be concerned if your skin suddenly gets dry and flaky, and if it’s much worse than your typical dry skin—especially if it’s itchy and painful or even bleeding,” says Dr. Mandrea.
It could be a sign of an underlying problem, including diabetes, kidney disease, or an underactive thyroid—conditions that often go undiagnosed until later stages. All of these conditions impact your body’s ability to stay hydrated and maintain healthy moisture levels. With diabetes, for example, chronically high blood sugar speeds up the rate that your body loses fluid. And an unhealthy kidney isn’t able to keep the right balance of nutrients in your blood.
Irritated skin alone is rarely a sign of serious health problems. As a first step, try drinking more water and frequently massaging a thick, oil-based cream moisturizer into your skin. You might like one of these products dermatologists swear by.
If that doesn’t help, it may be the warning signal that gets you into the doctor’s office for a full checkup, says Dr. Mandrea.
Secret #5: Skin Discolorations Could Mean You’re Missing Key Nutrients
Sometimes, people experience a dusky yellowish change in the color of their skin. “You might even see a little yellowing in the whites of your eyes,” Dr. Mandrea says. “That can be a sign of dehydration or a vitamin deficiency.”
One of the first things your dermatologist might ask about is the foods you normally eat and how much water you drink in a day. Your skin cells count on a steady diet of the full range of vitamins—including A, B12, C, E, and K—to hold on to a healthy complexion.
The B vitamins are found in meats and fortified cereals. Nuts and vegetable oils deliver vitamin E. And the other key vitamins are in—you guessed it—vegetables and fruits.
Feeling pretty good about your eating habits and water intake? Dr. Mandrea notes sallow skin can also be a sign of jaundice, hepatitis, or gallstones. And yellow nails could indicate a bacterial or fungal infection.
“Your skin could be discolored even before you have any other internal symptoms,” says Dr. Mandrea. So if your color looks “off,” your next call should be to your dermatologist.
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