Your skin is more than just a cover for your body. It can also tell you a lot about your overall health and well-being. Some skin changes may be harmless, but others could indicate serious conditions that need medical attention. Here are some of the most common skin changes and what they could mean for your health.
- A velvety rash on the back of your neck or around your arms, usually with a slightly darker color than your normal skin tone, could be a sign of increased risk for type 2 diabetes. This condition is called acanthosis nigricans and it occurs when excess insulin in your blood stimulates the growth of skin cells. “When I see that, I warn the patient to get their blood sugar checked, and watch their diet,” says Dr. Doris Day, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
- A yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes could indicate liver failure. This condition is called jaundice and it occurs when bilirubin, a waste product from the breakdown of red blood cells, builds up in your blood and tissues. Jaundice can also cause itching, fatigue, dark urine and pale stools. It can be caused by various liver diseases, such as hepatitis, cirrhosis or cancer.
- A purple rash on your lower legs that does not respond to topical medication could be a sign of hepatitis C infection. Hepatitis C is a viral infection that affects the liver and can cause inflammation, scarring and damage. The rash is called cryoglobulinemia and it occurs when abnormal proteins in your blood clump together and block small blood vessels in your skin. Other symptoms of hepatitis C include fever, joint pain, fatigue and loss of appetite.
- A darkening of your skin in scars, skin folds or joints could be a sign of hormonal disease, such as Addison’s disease. Addison’s disease is a rare disorder that affects the adrenal glands, which produce hormones that regulate your metabolism, blood pressure and stress response. When the adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones, your skin may produce more pigment to compensate. Other symptoms of Addison’s disease include low blood pressure, weight loss, muscle weakness and salt cravings.
- A new or changing mole or spot on your skin could be a sign of skin cancer. Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells and it can be caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds. The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. The latter is the most serious and can spread to other organs if not treated early. “I think of us as medical detectives,” says Dr. Day. “I’m always looking for that clue — when did this change happen, why it’s here, what are the other symptoms … Those clues will help me find what’s going on inside.”
If you notice any of these skin changes or any other unusual or persistent changes in your skin’s appearance or sensation, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. Some skin diseases can be treated with medications, creams or ointments, while others may require lifestyle changes or surgery. Early diagnosis and treatment can make a big difference in your health outcomes.