What your skin says about your health

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Just as healthy skin contributes to your overall health, a key skin benefit is its ability to raise the red flag when your body becomes sick through changes in texture and color and through itching. "Dry skin is the most common cause of itching skin," said dermatologist Shasa Hu, MD, assistant professor of dermatology and cutaneous surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "But itching skin can reflect internal problems." That's why your dermatologist might do more to assess your health than hand you a moisturizer and send you on your way.

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Skin Health Signals: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) If you're a woman whose skin health is affected by male-pattern facial hair and cystic acne that resists traditional acne treatment, your skin might be signaling that you have PCOS. To make the diagnosis, Dr. Hu said, "We will screen for an irregular menstrual cycle and a family history of PCOS as well as order blood work." Treating this hormonal imbalance as well as any insulin resistance can control the condition and bring back healthy skin.

Skin Health Signals: Allergies Hives — blotchy welts on the skin — and other itchy insults to skin health often signal allergies. Hives can result from many kinds of allergies, from food to medications, from cats and dogs to insect stings, and even the pollen that causes hay fever. Because hives can occur even hours after contact with the offender, it may be difficult to pinpoint the triggers on your own. Your dermatologist might recommend special testing to get to the cause of your allergic skin reaction and restore healthy skin.

Skin Health Signals: Hypothyroidism "In addition to fatigue, anxiety, and cold or heat intolerance, women with low thyroid complain of brittle hair and nails as well as dry, dull, ashy skin," says Hu. Hair and nail health is part of skin health. In advanced cases, people with hypothyroidism might notice a thickening of the skin on their calves. Fortunately, most of these symptoms will go away after the low thyroid levels are treated. Skin Health Signals: Cutaneous Lupus For some people, round lesions on the skin are the first signs of the type of cutaneous lupus known as discoid lupus. Up to two-thirds of those with lupus will have skin involvement at some point in their lives, often on areas exposed to the sun. What's more, once you have lupus, sun exposure can make it worse, so protecting skin health with sunscreen becomes even more important. Seek care from a dermatologist experienced in treating lupus.

Skin Health Signals: Diabetes Even before you know you have high blood sugar, your skin could be signaling it with a sign called a plaque. "Too much blood sugar leads to changes in blood vessels in the skin," explained Hu. This results in shiny, thickened areas known as plaques. Areas of hyperpigmentation, or darkened skin tone, can also arise due to underlying diabetes. As diabetes progresses, elevated blood sugar can interfere with your skin's ability to serve as a barrier. As you lose circulation and sensation, you also compromise the ability of healthy skin to fight off infections. This is why people with diabetes are strongly advised to check their feet daily for small cuts and sores and to treat them immediately to prevent dangerous complications.

Skin Health Signals: Shingles A characteristic rash and painful skin signal the arrival of shingles, a re-activation of the varicella-zoster virus that gave you chicken pox as a child, but it can be even worse when it roars back after middle age. With quick treatment, the rash and pain should eventually go away. If treatment is delayed, pain could be far longer lasting and can cause significant complications, such as the loss of vision, hearing, or balance, in immune compromised people. This is one of the few skin health concerns for which a vaccine is available.

Skin Health Signals: Lymphoma Pruritus, or itchy skin, is often the early calling card of certain types of this lymph node cancer, such as Hodgkin's disease. The itchiness can be severe and constant. Chronic itchy skin is an at-times overwhelming symptom of the more rare cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. This skin health issue can be so severe that it further impacts quality of life, persisting despite cancer treatment. According to a survey of 100 patients, 88 percent reported ongoing itching over the previous four weeks and close to half complained that the itch was unrelenting — the more advanced the lymphoma, the worst the itch. Skin Health Signals: High Cholesterol People with untreated, high cholesterol can develop deposits of cholesterol build up in the skin. These deposits can lead to yellowish bumps known as xanthelasma, or xanthomas. This type of cholesterol build up is rare and generally occurs in people with severely elevated cholesterol or triglyceride levels due to a genetic disorder (such as familial hypercholesterolemia) or liver disease (such as primary biliary cirrhosis). Nevertheless, this is a skin health clue that can tip you and your doctor off to dangerously high cholesterol levels — a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

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