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Specialist surgeon and lecturer Dr Sarah Rayne tells us about six changes in our appearance that we should have checked out.
Specialist surgeon and lecturer Dr Sarah Rayne answers your questions
This is a sign of jaundice, a build-up of bile (broken-down red blood cells), which usually indicates liver problems. Bile collects in the gallbladder and flows into the gut to help absorb fat. If the flow is blocked, due to gallstones or cancer, the system backs up and the whites of your eyes turn yellow. An upset liver due to infection (hepatitis), medications or too much alcohol can also cause the liver to stop working, resulting in jaundice, along with pain and fever. Jaundice should send you to hospital immediately, even if you aren’t in pain or don’t have other symptoms.
White plaques around the eye
Yellowy-white plaques called xanthelasma can develop on the skin of the inner side of your eyes at the bridge of your nose. They’re a build-up of cholesterol and fat under the skin. This could mean your cholesterol is too high and that you’re at risk of heart disease. In some families very high cholesterol is hereditary and leads to early heart attacks. If you notice these plaques, see your doctor. It could save your life.
Developing a bronze-golden look – without having spent hours in the sun – can be a sign of iron overload. This genetic condition, called hemochromatosis, mostly affects people (commonly men) in their 40s-60s. It’s caused by the body’s inability to process iron, and it builds up. Excess iron damages the liver, pancreas (causing diabetes) heart and joints, leaving you tired and in pain, but the skin colour change (sometimes bronze, sometimes grey) can be the first sign.
Sores at the side of the mouth
Another sign of an iron problem is persistent ulcers and sore skin at the sides of your mouth. This time the problem is not enough iron! Your red blood cells, which carry oxygen all over your body to feed and grow cells, have a molecule of iron at the heart of each cell. Without a regular supply of iron, the cells can’t function and you develop anaemia – low blood iron levels that leave you tired, breathless and pale. If your intake of iron is low (meat is the easiest source) or loss of blood is common (such as heavy periods) you can develop anaemia. Iron supplements can reverse this and ensure you have enough to supply each cell.
Another less common type of anaemia is from a lack of vitamin B12. This time there is enough iron, but the red cells are too big so there aren’t enough of them to carry the oxygen. As well as tiredness and breathlessness, there are characteristic changes in the tongue: it gets swollen and painful, and looks glossy and very red. Most of the time the problem is a diet that lacks vitamin B12 (called the ‘tea and toast’ diet of the elderly) but the cause could also be malabsorption of the vitamin.
Losing your eyebrows
A classic sign of a low thyroid is loss of hair in the outer third of each eyebrow. An underactive thyroid is one of the most common conditions that affect women, particularly as they get older. The symptoms of an underactive thyroid are signs of the body slowing down: you put on weight; become anaemic and tired; sleepy; constipated; and depressed. It happens slowly, and is often missed – except that the mirror is shouting out a warning: your eyes become puffy, your hair brittle and you lose part of your eyebrows. Go for a blood test if you notice any of these signs.