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

Yel­low eyes

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.

Golden skin

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.

Red tongue

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.

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