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What's Your Skin Trying to Tell You?

Women at dermatology appointment.

Interpret your skin symptoms

You probably know to call your doctor if you have signs like a high fever or a pain that doesn't go away. But what about a sign from your skin?

"Our skin manifests issues rooted to our internal organs or relative to inflammation," says dermatologist Deede Liu, MD, of The University of Kansas Health System. "The skin is very subtle, and dermatologists are experts at interpreting its messages."

While most symptoms mean nothing or are benign and easily treated, Dr. Liu said there are some symptoms you should always pay attention to.

Sun sensitive rashes

You should call your dermatologist if you have any rash or skin irritation that occurs when you are outside in the sunlight. Specifically, rashes on your chest, upper eyelids or on the top of your nose or cheeks may indicate an autoimmune disease such lupus or dermatomyositis.

Dermatomyositis is an inflammatory muscle disease with notable skin changes and can be associated with a range of internal cancers.

"Many people also experience photo-allergic reactions to topical or oral medications," says Dr. Liu. "This reaction is a sign that you might need to change your prescription." In addition, a rash on your face may be a simple case of rosacea.

Hair loss

Nonscarring hair loss might be a byproduct of stress, pregnancy, illness or prescription medication. But permanent nonscarring hair loss can be much more serious. Lupus and sarcoidosis both have early symptoms that include hair loss. Other possibilities are thyroid disease or a variety of inflammatory conditions, though these illnesses would be accompanied by other symptoms.

Abnormal bug bite reactions

Almost everyone has slight swelling or a small blister when bitten by an insect. "But if you notice a severe change in the way your body reacts to bites – a dramatic, abnormal reaction – best to get checked," says Dr. Liu. Any sort of hyperactive blistering or out-of-proportion swelling can signify several immune system issues.

Fingernail pitting

If you notice pockmarks on your fingernails, it could be a sign of psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, chronic hand eczema or other chronic inflammatory disease.

Any time a skin condition doesn't go away in a timely fashion or is accompanied by pain or fever, Dr. Liu recommends seeing a dermatologist. But she also cautions about becoming overly concerned.

"Sometimes a rash really is just a rash," she says.

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