Have you ever noticed things about your body that are annoying, weird, smelly, or downright embarrassing? If so, you’re not alone. We all experience the often unsightly and sometimes unseemly signs and signals our bodies send us about our state of health. Ugly growths may pop up on our eyelids, or skin tags under our breasts. Our nails may be yellow or our partners may complain that we smell like ammonia.
Fortunately, many of these “body signs” are harmless and can be ignored or treated cosmetically. But sometimes what may seem like a cosmetic concern is more than meets the eye. The ugly growths on your eyelids may be xantelasmas, tiny deposits of cholesterol forewarning you that you may have high cholesterol and be at risk for heart disease. Unsightly skin tags – a common sign of aging – may signal diabetes. Yellowed nails may be nicotine stains, but they can also be warning signs of a lung or liver disorder. And while the ammonia-like odor you give off may mean you should hire a cleaning service, it can also mean that you’re eating too much protein, or you have Helicobacter pyelori bacteria, the bug that causes stomach ulcers.
Body signs can be seen, heard, tasted, felt, or smelled by you or others. Before modern diagnostic techniques, doctors had to rely on what their own and their patient’s five senses revealed to them. They listened to patients’ hearts, felt their pulses, looked at their tongues, eye-balled their eyes, inspected their hair, skin, and nails, smelled their smells, studied their stools, and sniffed or sometimes even tasted their urine. Doctors today, even though they may use sophisticated diagnostic equipment at their disposal, still apply these sensible techniques ? with the possible exception of tasting urine.
You, too, can learn to use your senses to detect warning signs of serious conditions and get medical help before they become full-blown diseases. You can:
Look at your hair, eyes, tongue, skin and nails.
Listen to your voice and stomach sounds
Smell your body wastes
Taste your mouth and saliva
Touch your hair, skin, nails
Going from head to toe, here are some warning signs you may detect using your five senses. And keep in mind that any change in any of your senses can itself be a warning sign that something is out of kilter.
When your hair feels more dry and brittle than usual, you may be over-processing it. Or, dry hair may signal an under-active thyroid or nutritional deficiency.
If your hair looks like it’s thinning, and you’re a woman, you may have female-pattern baldness, which often runs in families. But it can also be a sign of an over-active thyroid or an early warning sign of diabetes.
Hearing the sound of your heart beating inside your ears is actually normal, especially when lying down. But if you hear your heart beat or a throbbing sound in only one ear, it may be a warning sign of a heart murmur, high blood pressure, or other vascular disorders.
When normal noises sound louder than usual, it may be a drug side effect or a sign that you’ve been drinking too many diet sodas that contain aspartame. Super sensitivity to sound may also be telling you that you have a magnesium deficiency, or an autoimmune or other serious disease.
Seeing floaters, those spots or flecks that appear floating across your field of vision, is pretty common. But if you notice a sudden increase of floaters, you may have a retinal tear or even detachment (especially if you see flashing lights with the floaters), which requires immediate medical attention.
Eyes that feel dry all the time, may be caused by low humidity, or be a drug side effect. Chronic dry eyes can also be a warning sign of some autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, hyperthyroidism, and lupus.
While a nose that frequently looks red can be a tell-tale sign of excessive drinking, it can also be a red flag for the skin condition, rosacea. Interestingly, alcohol can trigger or worsen this condition.
If your sense of smell is not as keen as it used to be, it may be due to an injury to your nose, a normal sign of aging, or a sign of any number of disorders including zinc deficiency, nasal polyps, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and multiple sclerosis. It can also be very early warning sign of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.
A terrible taste in your mouth that won’t wash away with mouthwash can be a side effect of such medications as antibiotics, antidepressants, antihypertensives, as well as some vitamins supplements. It can also be a sign of gum disease, a viral infection, gastrointestinal disorder, Bell’s palsy, or burning mouth syndrome, a rare condition that primarily affects menopausal women.
A healthy tongue is covered with tiny bumps called papillae. If you tongue looks or feels very smooth and glassy, it may be telling you that you’re deficient in certain nutrients such as folic acid, vitamin B12, or iron. A smooth, red tongue may signal pernicious anemia or malabsorption syndrome, a condition in which the body cannot adequately absorb nutrients.
Hearing your stomach rumbling a lot may merely be the result of excess gas from a high-fiber diet or a diet containing too many carbohydrates, carbonated drinks, or artificial sweeteners. But excess gas may also signal lactose intolerance, food or drug allergies, or any number of gastrointestinal disorders.
If your arms or legs frequently feel numb and tingly, it may be the result of a pinched nerve, or an important warning sign of several serious conditions such as adrenal disorder, a circulatory problem (peripheral arterial disease), or a nerve disorder (peripheral neuropathy).
YOUR BODY WASTES
Whatever you eat can affect the odor (and color) of your urine. But urine that often smells sweet can be an important warning sign of undiagnosed or uncontrolled diabetes.
What you eat can also affect the color (and sometimes the odor) of your stools. If your stools look very pale, it may be from eating a lot of rice, potatoes, and other white-colored foods. Medicine containing calcium can also cause pale stools. But persistently pale stools can signal a blockage of the bile ducts, which can be caused by tumors or liver diseases including hepatitis, cirrhosis, or liver cancer.
YOUR SKIN & NAILS
If you feel a single, rough, or scaly patch of skin somewhere on your body -especially on your arm, leg, chest or other sun-exposed area – it may just be a scar. But you may have a pre-cancerous condition called solar (or actinic) keratosis.
If you see dark horizontal streaks that look like (but aren’t) splinters under your finger or toenails, they may be splinter hemorrhages, a sign of trichinosis, a parasitic disease caused by eating undercooked pork or wild game. They can also be warning signs of psoriasis, peptic ulcers, kidney disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, blood-clotting diseases, and endocarditis, an infection of the heart.
You can see that checking your body periodically from head to toe can sometimes uncover important and often-missed warning signs of serious diseases. Keeping track of your body signs can be an important preventive health measure. It will also help you to actively participate in your health care and the diagnostic process as a partner with your doctor. And don’t forget to check out those near and dear to you; you may be able to pick up things that they themselves are unaware of.
If you do notice a disturbing body sign on either you or your loved ones – no matter how trivial or embarrassing – mention it to a doctor. Discussing annoying, bizarre, or embarrassing signs with a doctor will make it much easier to get a quick, accurate diagnosis when something is wrong, enabling you to get prompt treatment. It can also help you rule out serious conditions when all is well. Indeed, many of the body signs that may concern you will turn out to be perfectly normal and benign, or of no particular consequences, thus saving you further medical expense, time, and anxiety.
Joan Liebmann-Smith, Ph.D., is a medical sociologist and award-winning medical writer. Her articles have appeared in American Health, Ms., Newsweek, Redbook, Self, and Vogue, and she has appeared on numerous television talk shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Today Show. She has a daughter, Rebecca, a cat, Fazelnut, and lives with her husband, Richard — also a writer — in New York City.
Jacqueline Nardi Egan is a medical journalist who specializes in developing and writing educational programs with and for physicians, allied health professionals, patients, and consumers. She is also a former medical editor of Family Health magazine. She has a daughter, Elizabeth, two dogs, Coco and Abby, and divides her time between Darien, Connecticut, and Sag Harbor, New York.