The human body is a truly marvellous structure. The composition of various types of cells, combined to create tissues and organs that all function together, enabling the structure to live, breathe and move. How truly privileged we are to be able to exist in such complex, yet beautifully put together structures.
Just the same, these complex structures are sensitive. Anything harmful can cause a domino effect of damage that ultimately disables the body from functioning as it should. If we look after ourselves, how beautifully we can flourish. Harm, however, can affect every inch of our bodies and manifest in ways obvious on the surface.
When last have you taken a good look at yourself in the mirror? Are you really as spick and span as you think you are?
Your body may be trying to tell you things about your overall condition that you may not be all that aware of at first. Typical tell-tale signs may be evident on your face and elsewhere, warning you that something isn’t functioning as it should.
Often, when you’re visiting your doctor for a check-up he or she may be tuned in to recognise certain facial traits you may not notice yourself at first. Sometimes there are subtle signs that reveal vital clues about what is going on in your body.
What clues is your face giving away about your health?
Your body may be trying to get your attention. Here are some signs your body is trying to get your attention - it could be written all over your face:
- “They call me mellow yellow …” - A yellow colour on your skin and in your eyes: When there is an excess amount of the waste product, bilirubin (a yellowish chemical compound or pigment) in the body’s system which develops when red blood cells (RBCs) breakdown in the liver, yellowing occurs. The substance then does not pass through the system as waste (stools and urine). The liver does not metabolise the compound and this leads to a build-up of the substance which lingers where it is not naturally welcome in the body. This causes a condition known as jaundice and is typically recognised by a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. Babies often develop this condition shortly after birth as their little livers are not yet mature enough to handle the normal breakdown. For them, the condition is generally harmless and resolves itself. For an adult, yellow discolouration is a red flag, which should never be taken lightly. It could indicate serious malfunctions and damage within the liver, pancreas or gallbladder, or an infection such as hepatitis or mononucleosis (also known as the kissing disease). Damage can sometimes be caused by excessive alcohol consumption which wears away at the tissues, disabling them from being able to function sufficiently. If you notice raised yellow bumps on or around your upper and lower eyelids, you may have a condition called xanthelasmata. These little lumps are made of cholesterol and aren’t typically painful or too concerning. The can indicate other health complications, such as heart disease or heart attack, so it is advisable to book a consultation with your doctor and have them removed.
- Holy Moley: Spotted a mole? Sometimes little spots, bumps and lumps are not too concerning. On other occasions these little bumps, often darker in colour need to be checked. The most worrying sign a mole may be pointing to is cancer. When it comes to determining warning signs to worry about, it is best to remember your ABCDEs > Asymmetrical: The shape of the mole is different on each side. Border: The edges of the mole are jagged or irregular. Colour: The colour of the mole is uneven. Diameter: The ‘straight line’ from one side to the other measures larger than that of a pea. Evolving: The overall appearance of the mole has changed within a period of a few weeks. A ‘yes, this is true’ to any of these is a signal to book a consultation with your doctor as soon as possible for a thorough check.
- Ouch – what’s that on my lip? Sores around the lips and mouth are commonly known as cold sores. The cause is usually as a result of the herpes simplex virus type 1. Once contracted, the virus typically remains in the system and results in little sore breakouts when your body is suffering a form of weakness, such as an infection or illness, or when you’re overtired or feeling anxious. Cold sores generally resolve themselves once the weakness or trigger clears or comes right again. Frequent breakouts or large sores may need medical intervention. This can easily be treated with medication.
- Cracking up? Cracked lips happen to us all, especially during seasonal weather changes. We all typically reach for lip balms to help moisten the skin on our lips and repair or protect their condition, so that they are soft and supple again. Dry lips are sometimes a tell-tale sign of dryness happening on the inside of the body, and not an environmental change. Dehydration is one such culprit that will cause lips to dry out and crack. Your body is lacking a sufficient amount of water. Another common cause is an adverse response to medications, particularly steroids. Dry, chapped lips and skin can also sometimes be an indication of a more serious condition affecting the function of the sweat glands – hypothyroidism. If your body is lacking in producing sufficient levels of thyroid hormones, you could also experience symptoms of weight gain, fatigue and consistently feeling cold. Another indicator of dehydration may point to diabetes. If dryness is accompanied by frequent urination, increased thirst (extreme) and blurry vision, you may have developed diabetes. It is wise to consult your doctor and have a thorough check-up in-case your condition is a sign of something more serious that will require medical treatment.
- “Butterfly kisses …”: A rash that spans both cheeks and across the bridge or your nose, almost like the wings of a butterfly is a unique sign of the autoimmune condition, lupus. An autoimmune disorder is a complex condition whereby the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues instead of only those that are affected by harmful viruses or bacteria that enter the body. Lupus is also typically diagnosed with symptoms of achy and stiff joints, a fever and fingers that appear blue when exposed to cold conditions. This rash should never be dismissed with a wait-and-see approach. If you notice a butterfly rash on your face, book a consultation with your doctor as soon as possible.
- What’s all this hair doing there? Hair that grows in abnormal places, especially on the face if you’re a woman can signal something wrong in the body. For younger women, abnormal hair growth (such as on the chest or stomach area as well as the hands and face), can point to significant hormonal imbalances in the body. In many cases, this could be an indication of a condition known as PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome). In this instance, hormones will not stabilise themselves and will require medical intervention in order to avoid the development of more serious health concerns and complications.
- Oh no, why am I losing hair? The loss of patches of hair can be very distressing for anyone. When this happens along with the loss of eyelashes or eyebrows, it may be a sign of alopecia areata. This happens when the body’s immune system malfunctions and begins attacking hair follicles. Hair loss may also be an indication of underlying thyroid dysfunction, anaemia, protein and/or vitamin deficiencies. As distressing as it can be, consult your doctor about medication options which may be able to address the cause of hair loss and assist with growing new hair, even though it’s not normally possible to prevent new bald patches from occurring with this condition.
- Eyelids looking a little droopy? A drooping eyelid is typical of ptosis (or blepharoptosis) which can affect one or both eyes. A person may be born with this condition or develop it gradually over a few decades of their life. In milder cases, this droop can be harmless. In other instances, it can be more severe and develop problems with blocking your vision, or signal concerns with the function of your nerves, brain or even the eye socket. Another condition whereby the eyelid droops could be myasthenia gravis (weakness of the skeletal / voluntary muscles). If a droop occurs within a matter of hours or days, or you begin to experience other symptoms such as double vision, muscle weakness, a bad headache or even trouble swallowing, see your doctor immediately – as these can also be warning signs of a stroke in progress.
- All puffed up: Puffy eyes? If the space just beneath your eyes appears swollen and puffy with a dark blue-purple hue, this is normally as a result of fluid build-up in the area. Typical causes are hot and humid weather which results in the body retaining more water, an excess of salt in the body due to diet, hormonal changes or a lack of sleep. Redness and itchiness can be as a result of an allergic reaction (or chronic allergies) to things like pollen, foodstuffs, make-up, fragrances, cleansers or a pinkeye infection. Sometimes puffiness happens as a result of the aging process when the muscles that support the eyelids naturally weaken.
- Resembling a panda? While dark circles under the eyes may be hereditary and are not always an indication of an underlying health issue, they can indicate chronic kidney problems, anaemia, allergies or adrenal fatigue.
- Out of focus: A sudden or dramatic loss of vision may be a serious red flag pointing to a malfunction of blood flow to the brain or eyes, which can cause severe damage. Emergency care may be necessary in order to potentially save your life. An abrupt loss of vision may signal a migraine or be a warning sign of a stroke.
- Developed a bulge? When the thyroid gland releases too many hormones, a condition known as Graves’ disease can occur. One of the defining symptoms of this (although rare among those with the condition) is swelling on the eye which causes the eyeball to bulge or protrude from the sockets (exophthalmos). You may experience an achiness in the eye, as well as dryness due to the irritation caused by swelling. The eyes will appear red and inflamed, and tear a lot due to not being as sheltered by the eyelids. Other symptoms of this condition include weight loss, diarrhoea and hand tremors.
- Have you noticed a ring in your eyes? If you’re under 40, this could be an indication of dangerously high levels of cholesterol in your system. A grey-white line of fat deposits forms a ‘border’ at the outer edge of your cornea (the clear, curved surface located at the front of your eye). The cornea is what helps to focus your vision. The deposits can form a partial ring, and sometimes a complete circle. The condition is known as corneal arcus.
- Feeling twitchy? Eye twitches can be harmless and as such clear up on their own. In this instance, underlying causes could be related to a pinched nerve, fatigue, smoking habits or too much alcohol or caffeine. In rare instances, the nervous system is trying to tell you something and possibly signal a condition like multiple sclerosis (MS). Other symptoms such as difficulties with talking, walking or comfortable bowel movements (or difficulties with urination) will usually accompany most conditions relating to a problem with the nervous system.
- Blind as a bat at night? You may be lacking vitamin A if you’re struggling to see in low light. This is more common in countries where good nutrition is a problem for communities, and can be easily treated with improved diet changes and supplements. In other instances where vision in low light is a problem, the need for glasses or cataracts may be the underlying reason.
- Is your skin a little flushed, patchy or bumpy? Heard of ‘the mask of pregnancy’? Grey-brown patches (known as melasma) that develop on facial skin can often happen to women during pregnancy. Patches (or pigmentation marks) can also happen as a reaction to sun exposure or to women taking oral contraceptive pills (birth control pills). Clusters of red bumps that may be itchy can sometimes be a sign of celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. Other facial bumps may be a reaction to certain digestive issues, an allergy, eczema, infections with symptoms of rash or rosacea (facial redness due to enlargement of blood vessels).
- Spotty jawline? While all acne is as a result of clogged pores and bacterial growth that lead to swollen bumps known as pimples, when a woman experiences a breakout along her jawline it can be an indication of shifting hormone levels, a hormonal imbalance and/or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
- I can’t move! If for any reason you find yourself unable to move a part of your face (or any part of your body for that matter), seek medical assistance immediately. If your inability to move a portion of your face seemingly happens out of the blue and doesn’t appear to be accompanied by any other symptoms, it may be Bell’s palsy (a weakness or paralysis of the muscles on the one side of a person’s face). Bell’s palsy is also known as idiopathic facial paralysis and can sometimes be caused by a contracted virus which pinches the nerves that control the facial muscles and results in weakness and swelling. Paralysis (of any kind) can happen within a matter of hours or days and may also be accompanied by pain in the jaw and behind the ear. Medical treatment should help resolve the paralysis within 3 to 6 months. If facial paralysis (facial asymmetry) happens suddenly within a matter of seconds and accompanied by numbness, weakness in the arms and legs, double vision, slurred speech, trouble swallowing, or dizziness, these are signs that require immediate emergency care, as you could be having a stroke.
- My face is changing colour! A pale complexion can indicate anaemia. A bluish discolouration around the lips (known as cyanosis) can be a result of a heart or lung condition. Any slight complexion change can be a red flag for something serious and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you notice a change, consult your doctor as soon as possible for a thorough check-up.
- What’s that smell? Your mouth could be telling you something about the condition of your heart or bones and not necessarily just be about poor oral hygiene which tends to result in a foul smell. A lack of sufficient hygiene over extended periods of time has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease. Missing teeth can also result from a lack of sufficient jawbone density support or may be an indication of osteoporosis.
- My chin is receding! When coupled with a small jaw and thick neck, a receding chin may indicate sleep apnoea, a condition which causes you to stop breathing for more than 10 seconds as you sleep. If your friends and family report that you snore loudly and if you wake up with headaches and experience unusual fatigue throughout the day, speak to your doctor about tests for this disorder.
Can your hair and scalp also show signs of ill-health?
Possibly. Sometimes a lack of sufficient care can cause poor appearance and texture of your hair and scalp. In other cases, it may indicate something wrong in the body or occur as a result of an adverse reaction to a specific type of medication. Some signs you may note when it comes to your hair and scalp include:
- (Not so) fine and dandy: Scalp flakiness and dandruff happen to many people and can occur as a result of an overgrowth of a fungus. Dandruff is not contagious, but can be itchy and even embarrassing. If the flakes you see on your scalp appear yellow and greasy, this could indicate a problem with seborrheic dermatitis (an inflammatory skin condition that occurs when the body has excess oil glands). This condition is linked to hormones, some neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, or a fungus. Dead skin cells (dandruff) can be cleared away with daily use of an antidandruff shampoo (this must be thoroughly rinsed). If you find that this does not help, consult your doctor for advice or a thorough check-up. In some cases, a severe case of dandruff may be rectified with prescribed steroids or antifungal medications.
- Hair by the handful? The average person may shed up to 100 (or more) hairs a day. This is normal and does not indicate a problem in the body. An average person may have about 100 000 hair follicles, of which 90% of these are consistently producing hair at any given time. The remaining 10% remain in a resting phase (known as telogen). These hairs fall out every 2 to 3 months, and are replaced with new hair, beginning the growth cycle all over again. When a person goes through a physical trauma (injury, child birth or surgery) or has a reaction to vaccinations or medications (anticlotting, cholesterol-lowering, antidepressants, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, menopause, birth control, and antibiotics), severe stress, a crash diet (low-calorie diets can stunt hair growth or leave its appearance looking lifeless and limp, if the body is not getting a sufficient amount of nutrients) or a thyroid problem, a higher percentage of hair follicles can be forced into a telogen state. Within 2 to 3 months, you may notice more of your hair falling out than usual and resulting in thinning. This is called telogen effluvium. Sometimes hair begins to grow back right away when the underlying stress cause is resolved.
- Turning grey before middle age? Greying hair before the age of 40 may be genetic, and not necessarily a sign of poor health. Premature greying hair can, however, happen as a sign of anaemia, a vitamin B-12 deficiency, a problem with the thyroid or vitiligo (white patches on the skin).
What should you do?
If you notice anything unusual, or a change which you are unable to explain, it is highly advisable to have a check-up with your doctor (family physician or general practitioner). If necessary he or she will refer you to a specialist relating to your symptoms once a full physical exam and medical history discussion has been completed.
In some instances, the underlying cause is simple to pinpoint and may be just as clear-cut to treat effectively. In other cases, the signs are flagging a more serious cause which will need to be appropriately tested and diagnosed in order to effectively treat or manage.