"Listen to your body," health experts tell us time and again. But are those itches, aches and pains signs of something serious, or the harmless byproducts of a life well-lived? It¨Ìs not always that easy to tell. ¨Being in tune with your body can give you important clues about your health,¨ says Dr. Allen Anandarajah, director of the Early Arthritis Clinic at the University of Rochester Medical Center (N.Y.). But clues are merely clues — not diagnoses. Here¨s a lineup of seven signals that something could be amiss. To know for sure if that little symptom is a red flag for a big problem, though, ask your doctor. ¨No question is too small,¨ Anandarajah says.
Could be: Shingles. Although typically characterized by a painful band of blisters wrapping around one side of your torso from your breastbone to your spine, shingles often first reveal themselves via a tingly, itchy patch of skin up to a month before blisters form.
Do this: If you see the beginnings of a red, blotchy rash, see a doctor: If shingles are detected during the first 72 hours, prescription antiviral medications like Valtrex will kill the virus and block the pain.
Could be: Anemia or low iron. When we're not getting enough iron, fatigue and changes in the tongue and mouth are some of the first signs of a deficiency, says Dr. Mark Fendrick of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
Do this: Add protein-rich foods like eggs and seafood to your diet, and take a multivitamin to cover your bases. If symptoms don't go away after a few weeks, your doctor can determine if you have anemia with a simple blood test. Supplements can reverse the condition.
Could be: Psoriasis, a common autoimmune skin disease. Psoriasis is usually characterized by thick scales and itchy, dry, red skin patches. Nails, though, are a type of skin that protect the tips of our fingers and toes, and often signal the onset of psoriasis and other health problems, Fendrick says.
Do this: If found early, mild cases of psoriasis can be treated with an over-the-counter steroid cream. If large areas of your body are affected or if you're in great discomfort, see your doctor — you may need a prescription.
Could be: An underactive thyroid (aka hypothyroidism). An underactive thyroid doesn¨Ìt produce enough hormones and can cause you to be extra sensitive to cold. Other symptoms are fatigue, constipation and appetite change.
Do this: If you have symptoms over many days or weeks, or if you have a family history of the disease, ask your doctor for a blood test to confirm the condition. Oral medications are often prescribed to control or speed up the thyroid gland.
Could be: Red or painful eyes could signal the start of rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory condition that mainly affects the joints.
Do this: First see an eye doctor to rule out other issues like simple infections or eye strain. If necessary, visit a rheumatologist, who will do a blood test to confirm. Treatment usually entails a combination of drug therapy and other nondrug therapies to reduce inflammation and discomfort.
Could be: Right shoulder pain may be a sign of a gallbladder attack. (If the pain is in the left shoulder, it could be a sign of a heart attack.) When a gallstone keeps the gallbladder from emptying correctly, shooting pain can develop in the shoulder blade, upper-right quadrant of the abdomen and the mid-belly.
Do this: If you experience recurring pain in your right side or have trouble digesting fatty foods, see your doctor. If gallstones are the culprits, drugs can be prescribed to dissolve the stones, or surgical procedures to remove the stones might be recommended.
Dark Facial Hair
Could be: Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). "When a woman develops PCOS, the ovaries begin to work overtime, producing an excess of male hormones, and little to no progesterone," says Dr. Randall Urban of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. As a result, hair grows in thicker and darker, most often on the face, arms and back.
Do this: An ultrasound or a laparoscopic exam can confirm a diagnosis and determine treatment, including medications to moderate hormone levels, or in certain cases, surgery. Early diagnosis and treatment of PCOS may help prevent future reproductive, metabolic or heart problems.