Diseases can be crafty, sending messages to your skin like warning flares. But unless you know what to look for, you may miss those signs of underlying disease.
“People need to be looking for new rashes, growths, color changes, or changes in skin texture,” says dermatologist Janet Prystowsky, an attending physician at Roosevelt-St. Luke’s Hospital, part of Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. “Those kinds of changes can indicate internal problems such as infections, cancer, autoimmune diseases, or allergic reactions.”
To lessen the risk that your body’s skin messages go unread, read on about seven diseases that may show up on your skin.
Psoriasis is an immune-system disease caused by overactive white blood cells called T-cells.
- What shows up: “Psoriasis appears as patches of red, raised, circular lesions covered by whitish scales, especially on the knees and elbows,” says Prystowsky.
- Next step: If you also have joint pain, your dermatologist may refer you to a rheumatologist, who may prescribe methotrexate or a newer biological agent, which target inflammation.
If you have lesions body-wide, you may be tested for strep throat, says Prystowsky.
If the psoriasis is mild, your dermatologist may treat you with a topical steroid to lessen inflammation.
People with psoriasis are also more at risk for cardiovascular disease, so your internist should check your blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides regularly, says Prystowsky.
Food allergies are the result of an immune-system reaction, usually to a protein, that releases histamines.
- What shows up: Released histamines result in hives, or itchy welts on the skin, and sometimes a rash around the mouth.
- Next step: “Take an antihistamine like Benadryl and watch for worsening symptoms like breathing difficulties,” says Prystowsky. “Severe reactions can be fatal.” If you have difficulty breathing, contact your doctor or an emergency room right away.
Hepatitis C is a viral disease that leads to liver inflammation.
- What shows up: You may see a rash on your lower legs that doesn’t respond to treatment such as topical steroids.
- Next step: Your doctor may order blood tests to confirm hepatitis C.
Liver disease is a general term for anything that damages the liver such as cirrhosis, hepatitis C, pancreatic cancer, or bile duct cancer.
- What shows up: “If you have advancing disease, your skin and the white of your eyes turn yellow,” says Prystowsky.
- Next step: You need to get a work-up by an internist, which may include blood tests, a liver biopsy, or an imaging test.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection spread by sexual contact.
- What shows up: An ulcer may show up in a woman’s vagina or cervix, or on a man’s penis. Next, you may get flaky bumps all over, including on your palms and soles of your feet.
- Next step: If a blood test is positive for syphilis, your doctor will treat you with penicillin.
Staph infection is caused by bacteria called staphylococcus.
- What shows up: You may get blister-like eruptions, or a swollen, blackened hair follicle, says Prystowsky.
- Next step: If the infection is in one spot, your doctor may prescribe a topical antibiotic. If it’s widespread, he may suggest an oral antibiotic instead.
Internal cancer is cancer within your body such as breast or prostate cancer.
- What shows up: A new external growth may be cancer that has spread, appearing on the skin. “Sometimes you see a normal growth that gets inflamed or more growths showing up,” says Prystowsky.
- Next step: Your internist would do screening tests such as imaging or blood tests to determine if you have an internal cancer.