While dermatologists provide a vital and well-recognized medical resource, many of us have too limited a view on the full range of their expertise. Dermatologists are most associated with treating acne and skin cancer, but they can also treat and identify a host of other medical issues. They’re also who we turn to when we wish to combat signs of aging with a variety of procedures and treatments to leave our skin more supple and taut and keep us looking our best. More importantly, however, they serve as the first line of defense in the battle against skin cancer, often picking up on crucial warning signs that could prove fatal if left undetected. And for those suffering from painful and chronic skin conditions like psoriasis or eczema, they can offer much-needed relief through a variety of treatments. But this is merely a portion of the important services a dermatologist can provide. They can also help identify other serious medical conditions, offering a variety of treatment methods to improve our overall health. [pullquote align=”center”]“Skin and its various presentations can often offer us a unique insight into overall health.” —Joel Schlessinger, MD[/pullquote] So let’s look at several symptoms, what they could mean, and how a dermatologist can help. As always, knowledge is power, and a trained professional can help alleviate anxiety by providing a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
Rashes and Bumps
An unsightly and uncomfortable rash can persist for a multitude of reasons, and board-certified dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD, says it is always important to find out the root cause. “A rash could be caused by a new medication or it could be an indicator of a serious internal infection,” he states. “If a person’s skin is showing evidence of a significant internal problem, it is rarely the only symptom they are experiencing. Asking questions to gauge a patient’s overall health is crucial in diagnosing another condition.” Rashes can also be the first signs of an autoimmune disorder. For instance, a butterfly-shaped rash on the face may signify that a patient is suffering from lupus. It’s important to note that lupus can also cause rashes on other areas of the body, as well as lesions that can erupt after sun exposure. If a dermatologist suspects a patient has lupus, they’ll conduct a skin biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. Given the wide-ranging health impacts lupus can cause, a dermatologist will also refer patients to primary care physicians and specialists to offer a full course of therapy. As far as dealing with the rash itself, dermatologists can help reduce skin inflammation with corticosteroids (either by ointment, pill, or injections) and provide recommendations for sun protection and skincare products. Facial rashes marked by a bright red appearance, red bumps (and sometimes eye problems or even enlarged nose) may mark the presence of another condition known as rosacea.
“ma’am why are you blushing so much?” me: “I have rosacea”
— shelby reddy (@shelburttt) May 27, 2018
Often affecting middle-aged women (although it can occur in any age group), rosacea is also hallmarked by a tenderness to the touch. Dermatologists can help treat it with a variety of methods, including topical ointments such as brimonidine, a gel which helps reduce redness, or azelaic acid and metronidazole. For more extreme symptoms, antibiotics like doxycycline can help reduce bumps and inflammation, and for the most severe cases, the oral medication isotretinoin has proven effective. In addition, a dermatologist can also address a variety of factors that can trigger rosacea (including, but not limited to, climate, stress, and diet) to help reduce recurrences.
“Scaly skin could mean diabetes,” Schlessinger says. “The patches of discoloration on skin that can sometimes accompany diabetes, for example, can occasionally be mistaken for dark spots caused by sun damage.” He adds that these rough patches can often appear as “velvety-dark skin with bumps on the neck and underarms,” which “can signify the beginnings of diabetes or a potential concern for it in the future.” Schlessinger notes that early detection is key to “observe and act upon as there is usually time to change sugar intake before [type 2] diabetes occurs.” The next stop would be a trip to the family physician for further diabetes diagnosis. Other non-skin cancer causes for scaly skin could be eczema, psoriasis, ringworm, or hyperthyroidism to name but a few. Because of this, Schlessinger says a proper diagnosis is key: “It’s important to note that many skin conditions can mimic others, and appearance alone is rarely indicative of the exact problem at hand.”
We’ve all had annoying itches from time to time, be it a bug bite, a reaction to medication or chemicals, or an allergic reaction to food or the environment. But Schlessinger says itchy skin could also note another medical issue: vitamin D deficiency. “It is not at all uncommon for me to see a patient who itches all over because of a low vitamin D level,” he states, saying the phenoments is often seasonal, and “happens more frequently in the winter and can lead to many symptoms, ranging from low energy to hair loss.” He adds that a lack of vitamin D can also be observed via bumps on the back and chest. The good news is that vitamin D deficiency is easy to treat—your doctor may suggest supplements or dietary changes. Limited time in direct sunlight can also prove beneficial.
Good for you Beth! I’m with you, #Psoriasis is a nightmare, so itchy especially in the heat. Vitamin D is so good for your skin, and there surely can’t be anything nicer than a paddle in the sea on a hot day! Ahhh! ☺ ☀
— New Macdonalds Farm (@MatthewAndLou) May 20, 2018
Like scaly skin or rashes, it’s important to point out that itchiness can be attributed to other conditions, including dermatitis, psoriasis, and eczema. But having low levels of vitamin D is often linked with those skin issues as well, which makes it important to regulate. It can even be a symptom of diabetes as well. But taking too much vitamin D may actually cause itching, according to a 2011 study. And a separate 2013 study by the Brazilian Society of Dermatology states that while vitamin D used to treat atopic dermatitis shows optimistic results, “future studies should investigate the optimal levels of vitamin D necessary to maintain cutaneous health.”
When one has hair or nail issues, a dermatologist’s care may not immediately come to mind, but it’s important to note that both are made of the protein keratin and therefore fall under the dermatological umbrella in terms of treatment. And they can be helpful in diagnosing the cause of hair loss, which, in addition to men, affects women for a number of reasons. “Hair thinning and hair problems can be devastating especially for women,” Tess Mauricio, MD, fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, says. “…When evaluating patients with hair problems, we take a full medical history and examine the scalp, skin, and even nails!” She adds that there are various causes for women’s hair loss, including hormonal issues and pregnancy; and that “recent illness or emotional stress can cause hair shedding and hair thinning and a condition called telogen effluvium.” As far as treating hair loss, Mauricio says there are a variety of methods, from the use of Minoxidil to “low level lasers, oral supplements and platelet rich plasma can help.” Stress relief and hormone replacement therapies can also prove beneficial.
In addition to being associated with hair loss, Schlessinger says fingernails should also be monitored to reveal other health conditions: “Nails’ appearance can be a sign of various conditions and is important to recognize. Yellow nails, for example, can signify a bronchial infection or the beginning of psoriasis (even without any other skin changes).” “Clubbing, where the nail curves over the edge and the pad of the finger enlarges or swells, can be a sign of heart or lung disease,” he says. “Lines with a slight indentation can indicate a shock to the system, such as poor nutrition or a form of nail shock from chemotherapy treatments.” In addition to the aforementioned causes, the appearance of your fingernails can identify a host of other conditions. Pale nails for example, are a sign of anemia, while white nails can signify hepatitis. These are a just a few examples—your dermatologist can identify the proper cause. And sometimes a yellowish nail signifies a fungal infection of the nail itself. Dermatologists can treat that issue with antifungals and antibiotics, along with self care regimens, including warm compresses and hot water soaks.
Be kind to the skin you’re in.
It’s important when reviewing these symptoms to remember that just because you’re exhibiting any symptoms on this list, you may not have any of the conditions we’ve listed. Everyone’s skin is different, and some are more sensitive and reactive than others. “Skin and its various presentations can often offer us a unique insight into overall health,” Schlessinger states. Not only that, but skin changes over time—and as we age, we can all expect the occasional odd blemish, or bump. They’re often not serious (like benign cysts or seborrheic keratosis), and most are easily treatable. But if you’re concerned, or just curious about a skin condition you’re currently experiencing, it’s best to save yourself the stress of self-diagnosing your symptoms on WebMD and get a professional opinion instead.
webmd says i have either the common flu or throat cancer
— isabella ♥️ (@isaaabellaferre) May 27, 2018
And while we’ve stated our intent of this piece was to focus on non-skin cancer related issues, we can’t stress the importance of regular skin checks by your doctor. If you’re looking for info on possible skin cancer symptoms that all women should know about, our recent article can help. Just remember that keeping your skin in good shape has more than superficial benefits. They say it’s the inside that counts, and our skin can tell us a lot about our entire body. By taking care of our outer appearance, we can improve our overall health as well.