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The body’s warning signs

Thinning hair, cracked corners of the mouth, red cheeks: our bodies reveal a lot about our health at first glance. It’s therefore worth taking a closer look to recognise our body's warning signs and identify illnesses early on.

Text: Katharina Rilling; photo: Sanitas

We often notice it intuitively: the person looking back at us is pale, has dull eyes and just doesn’t seem healthy. Should we take these signs seriously and what should we watch out for when we look in the mirror? Our body’s warning signs aren’t always due to stress. Specialists explain what conclusions can be drawn about our health with the naked eye – but of course self-diagnosis never replaces a visit to the doctor.

“The skin may be a mirror of the soul, but it also reflects what’s going on inside our body.”

Changes in skin: warning signs

 

“The skin may be a mirror of the soul, but it also reflects what’s going on inside our body. Changes in the skin may be an indication of other illnesses,” says Bettina Schlagenhauff, dermatologist and member of the board of the Swiss society of dermatology and venerology. She explains what changes in the skin can tell us:

  • Less elasticity may indicate that we’re not drinking enough water. To test, pinch the skin on the back of your hand together, then let it go. If the skin takes a long time to drop back, this may indicate a lack of fluids.
  • Pale skin: An illness or deficiency causes the skin to appear pale and often goes hand in hand with dark circles under the eyes. This can be caused by a reduction in red blood pigment due to a lack of red blood cells, for example with blood diseases, or chronic blood loss in case of stomach ulcers or other diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. Pale skin can also be caused by infections and kidney or heart diseases. But perhaps the sallow skin is also due to an iron deficiency, as is often the case with women. Sudden loss of colour in the face may indicate that some kind of collapse is imminent. The blood pressure falls and the skin is no longer supplied properly with blood. This can be caused, for example, by vasovagal syncope (VVS) that typically occurs when the body overreacts to a stimulus that induces a state of fear or emotional distress.
  • A red face can be an indication of high blood pressure. A high temperature can cause the skin to first appear pale, but it reddens later. A red face is also a sign of rosacea, a condition that causes redness and often small, red, pus-filled bumps on the face.
  • Yellowish skin: Jaundice can be a sign of liver disease.
  • Blemished skin with blackheads, enlarged pores and inflammatory changes such as spots are normal to a certain extent in young people during puberty. They can also occur later in life. If the blemishes are severe, they may be caused by a hormonal imbalance. Stress also affects the sebaceous glands of the skin and can make blemishes worse.
  • Rashes: The skin complaints that dermatologists see most often are the classic skin diseases: neurodermatitis, psoriasis, allergic and other contact eczema and hives (urticaria). Rashes associated with internal diseases are varied, but less common. Many viral diseases and bacterial infections are signalled by rashes. Rashes are also a common symptom of allergic reactions, but they are less frequent. Other illnesses, such as leukaemia or lymphoma, may also be accompanied by rashes.
  • Neurodermitis, psoriasis and hives can also be signs of persistent stress, which exacerbates inflammation in the skin and other organs. This has been clearly scientifically proven in patients with neurodermatitis and psoriasis and in patients with certain forms of hives. Even acne and allergies can be warning signs that the body is under a lot of stress. However, the above skin diseases are not caused by stress alone, but can be aggravated by it.
  • Cracked corners of the mouth are a common complaint of patients with neurodermatitis. They can often also be a sign of an iron, zinc or vitamin B12 deficiency or another underlying illness such as diabetes.

Sudden hair changes

 

  • Increased hair loss is often a sign of iron or zinc deficiency or an over- or under-active thyroid and can – usually after a delay of several weeks – occur after pregnancy, serious infections and operations or after severe psychological shocks and stressful situations.
  • Increased and sudden hair growth on a woman’s face may indicate an hormonal imbalance. In conjunction with other symptoms it can also be a sign of an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.

Identify illnesses from the fingernails

 

  • In addition to nail diseases, congenital bone development disorders or fungal infections, the nails also indicate other diseases. Some skin diseases, such as psoriasis, are accompanied by changes to the nails. Lung diseases can also change the colour and shape of our nails, while iron or zinc deficiency can cause discolouration or structural changes to the nails.
“Many illnesses can also impact vision.”

Eyes: the window to our soul?

 

The Swiss Ophthalmological Society (SOG) says that many illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, rheumatism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, can also impact vision. Some examples to check symptoms:

  • Bags under the eyes can just be caused by fatigue or ageing, but they can also be a sign of kidney problems. In case of doubt, it’s worth getting yourself checked out by an ophthalmologist.
  • Yellowish eyes may be a sign of jaundice. In this case, the doctor should take a look at your liver. 
  • Clouding of the lens of your eye is a sign of cataracts. 
  • Shiny eyes often indicate a high temperature.
“Gums are often inflamed due to poor oral hygiene.”

Changes to teeth and gums: what our mouth tells us

 

In response to our query, the Swiss Dental Association SSO, provided the following tips:

  • Inflamed gums: There is a link between diabetes and periodontitis. Radiation, nicotine, medication and rare inflammatory immunological diseases can also impact the lining of the mouth and gums. However, gums are often inflamed due to poor oral hygiene. A visit to the dentist or dental hygienist will reveal more.
  • Oral dysesthesia is caused by a lack of vitamin B12, folic acid or iron, among other things, but also by too little saliva. However, it can also be caused simply by ageing. Furthermore, this symptom can be observed in diabetes and as a side effect of medication.