Remember the last time you had a cough you couldn’t shake? Or when your stomach wasn’t happy about something you ate? It’s easy to identify symptoms that we’re familiar with, especially when they disrupt our daily lives or how we feel physically. Even so, there’s a big organ—and actually, the largest organ!—that we often ignore, because we don’t know the signals it’s trying to send us.
Newsflash: our skin has a lot to say about our overall health. “Not only is our skin the largest organ in our body, it’s also the strongest and one of the most important,” medical director at Miami Dermatology & Laser Institute, Jill S. Waibel, MD says. “Any disease that you come into contact with can be reflected onto your skin.”
This is why Dr. Waibel suggests that you see your local board-certified dermatologist if you have any lesion on your body that won’t heal or that you are concerned about, especially after the age 40. “If you are of the age of 40 and older, you should be seeing your board-certified dermatologist once a year for a total body exam. This is where the physician looks over your entire body to make sure that all lesions are nothing harmful.”
Below are just a few telltale signs that there could be something going on with your body:
If you’re noticing frequent breakouts around your jawline that won’t go away, even with the best acne creams, you might be experiencing an adult-onset acne, often called hormonal acne. But while it might not be a big deal, it’s worth talking to your dermatologist as it could identify something more serious than an unfortunate zit before a big interview, especially if you’re also noticing random hairs in odd places. “Tender, cystic, hormonal acne and hirsutism (excessive hair on the face, chest, lower abdomen and inner thighs) can be signs of a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Diagnosis may require lab work and/or an ovarian ultrasound,” explains dermatologist Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse M.D., FAAD. “PCOS can be associated with being overweight, hypertriglyceridemia and insulin resistance, as well as fertility issues.”
If you have psoriasis, then you know how uncomfortable and inconvenient flare-ups can be. According to Dr. Shainhouse, those persistent red, scaly and itchy patches that appear on your scalp, elbow and knees can signal other internal inflammations as well. “These can be associated with psoriatic arthritis and an increased risk for heart disease. Keep weight in check and stop smoking immediately to reduce cardiac risk factors,” Dr. Shainhouse explains.
Anything that feels out of the ordinary can often be a scary situation: consider the first time you got a rash or you found a tick. Though you’re older—and likely have been through your fair share of skin freakouts—if you notice something strange, it’s important to act on it and get it checked out ASAP. As Dr. Waibel says, dark patches on the back of your neck, a skin condition known as acanthosis nigricans, can be a warning sign of a cancerous tumor in an internal organ, such as the stomach or liver. “This diagnosis can be a sign of diseases such as stomach cancers or other gastro-intestinal cancers, and commonly associated with insulin resistance, diabetes, slow thyroid and more,” she says.
While celiac is a serious disease that requires an adamant attention-to-detail in your diet and lifestyle, a large portion of the population struggle with some sort of adverse reaction to gluten. If you’re not sure if your sandwich and bagel habit is impacting your body, take a look at your joints—especially your knees and elbows—if you see tiny red dots. Why? Dr. Waibel says this is a condition called dermatitis herpetiformis. Among other ailments, it can signify that you have a gluten-sensitivity.
Especially if you’re rocking long locks, you probably notice a small handful of hair down the shower drain post-rinse. Shedding hair is often an indicator that your strands are healthy, but if you’re noticing discrete, round patches of hair loss, it’s time to see your doctor. Called alopecia areata, Dr. Shainhouse says this is an autoimmune disease condition whereby the body attacks its own hair follicles and the inflammation causes the hair to loosen and fall out. “Episodes are usually mild, but they can recur and be extensive in some cases. Some studies show that up to 17 percent of individuals with alopecia areata can have a second autoimmune condition, usually a thyroid disease,” she says.