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Read your body signs

body signs 2504Your body can offer vital clues on the state of your health, so take note of these warning signs.

Changes in your body and face aren’t just a sign of ageing – they can give you a valuable insight into what’s going on beneath the surface. While an obvious symptom such as pain, bleeding or fever is hard to ignore, body signs are usually subtle and easier to brush aside and leave uninvestigated.

‘These medical messages are not merely random occurrences. Rather, they are sent by our bodies to warn us something may be out of kilter,’ says Joan Liebmann-Smith, author of Body Signs: How To Be Your Own Diagnostic Detective (Michael Joseph, £12.99). Of course, that doesn’t mean you should panic each and every time you notice a small change.

‘Many of these health signs are common and, more often than not, nothing to worry about. But it’s vital you are alerted to them, and if they persist, get them checked out to rule out any underlying conditions which may be the cause,’ says Dr Rob Hicks.

Body sign: A pair of hot, swollen joints

It could mean… an early sign of rheumatoid arthritis

This condition is characterised by inflammation and pain or aches in the hands or wrists, knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows and feet. ‘A pair of swollen joints anywhere on your body, most commonly wrists, knees or ankles, must always be taken seriously as it may be a warning sign for rheumatoid arthritis. It’s something people often ignore for months before getting themselves checked, and if it is arthritis you could be damaging your joints,’ says Jo Cumming at Arthritis Care. ‘The swelling is caused by your immune system attacking the joint. In arthritis it will feel hot too, which is part of your body’s defence mechanism.’

If it’s just one swollen joint, this is likely to be due to injury or over-use.

What to do: See your GP, who will do a blood test to check for high levels of rheumatoid factor and a test to look for levels of proteins associated with arthritis. If tests are positive, you’ll be referred to a rheumatologist.

Body sign: Swollen glands in your neck

It could mean… an infection

‘Your glands normally swell up in reaction to an infection and in your neck this would be due to a cold, throat, ear or chest infection. Sometimes a gland stays swollen when there’s no infection – usually it’s nothing to worry about, but rarely it may be a sign of blood cancer lymphoma,’ says Dr Hicks. It might also be a sign of glandular fever.
What to do: If it’s a virus, the only treatments that will help are rest, fluids and painkillers. If it’s a bacterial infection, you’ll need antibiotics from your doctor. If your GP is concerned about your glands, you’ll have blood tests to rule out glandular fever and lymphoma. As a rule, swollen lymph glands due to cancers, lymphomas and leukaemias develop more slowly than those due to infections. They also tend to be painless at first.

Body sign: A lump in your mouth

It could mean… mouth cancer

‘Red or white lumpy patches, or ulcers which don’t heal within three weeks, could be early signs of mouth cancer and should always be checked,’ says Karen Coates, dental advisor to the British Dental Health Foundation.

The number of mouth cancer cases has doubled in the last decade and only half of those people who are diagnosed survive past five years. However, early detection increases the chances to 90%.

More usual causes are ulcers, damage from biting your cheek or from eating hot foods and brushing your teeth too hard.

What to do: See your dentist. ‘If he or she feels there’s something suspicious in your mouth, you’ll be referred to a medical consultant, who may take a biopsy and do blood tests,’ says Karen.

Body sign: Red or bleeding gums

It could mean… gum disease, linked with increased heart disease risk

‘Research shows that if gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) isn’t stabilised, it can then trigger an inflammatory response which can increase your risk of heart disease – and you don’t need an existing condition to be affected,’ says Karen. Swollen gums are your body’s way of telling you there’s a problem, while bleeding is its way of cleaning out the area as well.

Dr Christian Jessen explains: ‘We know that bacteria from the mouth can get into the bloodstream during dental procedures and cause serious heart infections, but more recently multiple studies have shown various connections between gum and heart disease – people exposed to certain bacteria associated with gum disease also have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.’

What to do: ‘Don’t stop brushing your teeth because of bleeding gums. You can cure gingivitis by brushing teeth for two minutes twice a day and cleaning between teeth daily,’ says Karen. If it doesn’t improve, see your dentist for advice.

Body sign: a yellow tinge in your eyes

It could mean… jaundice

‘Yellow eyes will be caused by the liver disease, jaundice,’ says Rosie Gavzey, optometrist and a director of The Eyecare Trust. The yellow is caused by a build-up of bilirubin, a waste product produced as red blood cells break down. Your liver combines this with bile, which gives the yellow colour. Any condition that disrupts your liver can cause jaundice, including sickle cell anaemia, malaria, cirrhosis or gallstones.

Jaundice tends to start on the head and face and spread down the body. The skin may also be itchy.  
What to do: See your doctor, who will do a urine and liver function test, plus an ultrasound scan of your liver.

Body sign: Bloodshot eyes

It could mean… iritis

‘Iritis – inflammation of the iris – is one cause of having a red eye. You’ll notice a red ring around the coloured part; your eye will ache and you’ll be very sensitive to the light,’ says Rosie.

‘Another cause is an acute attack of glaucoma – a group of eye conditions in which the optic nerve is damaged due to eye pressure changes. This would cause a painful red eye, blurred vision and a fixed, dilated pupil.’ The most common cause of red eyes, though, is conjunctivitis. ‘This can be allergic – which is caused by hay fever, or it can be viral or bacterial. The treatment will vary depending on the type.’

What to do: If iritis or glaucoma is suspected, you’ll be referred to a specialist at your local eye hospital for examination using a slit-lamp (a powerful microscope). An optometrist or GP can recommend treatment for conjunctivitis.   

Body sign: Thinning hair

It could mean… a thyroid problem

Your hair is a fairly accurate barometer of your general health. ‘Hair loss in women can be due to a thyroid hormone imbalance, which might be the result of menopausal or pregnancy changes or a genetic condition such as Graves’ disease, which attacks your immune system,’ says trichologist, Marilyn Sherlock, chair of The Institute of Trichologists.

‘A more common cause of hair loss is ferritin deficiency (an iron-protein complex). It’s more common than anaemia and affects around half of my patients,’ says Marilyn. It’s caused by the body failing to absorb iron properly or a lack of iron, which starves hair of essential nutrients.

What to do: See your GP for a blood test to check your thyroid hormone levels and iron levels. You can be prescribed thyroid hormone tablets and your hair should grow back.  

Body sign: Pale nails

It could mean… you’re anaemic

The state of your nails can provide vital clues about your overall health. ‘In many cases, having pale nails is down to your individual make-up, but it is one sign of anaemia. It can also sometimes be a sign of a liver problem or a thyroid disorder,’ explains Dr Hicks.

Pale, whitish nail beds may indicate a low red blood cell count consistent with having anaemia. An iron deficiency can cause the nail bed to be thin and concave and have raised ridges. If you’re anaemic there’ll normally be other signs too – usually tiredness – and women with very heavy periods are often anaemic.

What to do: Make an appointment with your doctor for blood tests to measure your iron levels. ‘You may be able to treat it by eating more iron-rich foods in your diet, such as meat, dried fruit and leafy green vegetables, but you might need an iron supplement. If heavy periods are a factor, you can be given a drug to reduce your monthly blood loss,’ says Dr Hicks.

Body sign: A crease across your earlobe

It could mean… a higher risk of heart disease

An earlobe crease that runs diagonally across your earlobe to its lower tip, is linked with a higher risk of heart disease. ‘A Swedish study found an earlobe crease had a predictive value of 68% for heart disease, and 80% in the under-40s. A Turkish study found they are a higher risk factor than diabetes, family history or smoking,’ says Dr Christian. ‘If you have one of these, don’t panic, it doesn’t mean a heart attack is inevitable, just that you may need to pay more attention to your heart health.’

What to do: See your GP to get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked regularly


This article was first published in at home’s ’Ask the Doctor’ with Dr Christian Jessen in March 2012. [Read the digital edition here]




Picture credit: Getty Images


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