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Strange Health Symptoms Explained

We’ve all been there: You notice something unusual on your body, and suddenly you’re querying all your friends and sleuthing around online to figure out what’s wrong. Does that odd rash mean you should switch moisturizers, or should you be thinking skin cancer?

Even those of us without hypochondriac tendencies tend to get spooked now and again by body oddities. “It’s easy to jump to the worst-case scenario, but it’s always a good idea to take a step back and calm down,” says Renée Scola, MD, an internist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “Of course, there are some symptoms, like chest pain, that you don’t ever want to ignore. But if you have a rash for a few days without other symptoms [like a fever], it’s probably safe to wait for a couple more days to see what happens before calling your physician.”

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A good rule of thumb: When in doubt, get things checked out—but unless something feels or looks awful, resist that urge to hit the panic button right away. Instead, take a deep breath and follow our expert-approved guide to help you figure out what’s simply annoying and what’s an indication you might need medical help.

Hair Loss

When it’s just strange: “Losing about 100 hairs throughout the day is normal,” says Jeffrey Garber, MD, president of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Even substantial thinning (think hundreds of hairs a day, possibly in clumps) is nothing to worry about if you’re currently going through hormonal changes. For example, if you’ve recently stopped using hormonal birth control, had a miscarriage or had a baby, hair loss is likely just the result of your body readjusting. Your tresses should return to their former glory within three to four months. It’s also normal for hair texture to change due to hormones, which means you don’t need to worry following a pregnancy if your curly hair no longer needs to be tamed with a flat iron or your once-dry hair seems magically moisturized.

When it’s a warning sign: Not sure if the shedding is excessive? Try the “pull test,” says Dr. Garber: “Carefully grasp a small section and lightly tug to see how many hairs will come out.” Losing more than five telogen hairs, the ones with the root attached, is cause for concern, he says. Unless you can pinpoint an obvious hormonal cause (as mentioned above), call your doctor.

Your physician will examine your scalp and may suggest blood tests to figure out exactly what’s going on. “Deficiencies of zinc, iron or biotin [a B vitamin] can all cause hair loss, as can an under- or over-active thyroid,” says Dr. Garber.

You should also check in with your doctor if your hair texture has changed and a new baby isn’t in the picture. “Patients often notice texture changes during times of unusual stress or following a serious illness,” or your iron levels could simply be low, explains Dr. Scola.

“Butterfly” Rash

When it’s just strange: Again, blame hormones: Many moms-to-be develop a butterfly-shaped sprawl of freckle-like spots on their cheeks and nose, as do some women who are taking birth control pills or using hormone therapy for menopause symptoms. The rash (sometimes referred to as a mask) is officially called melasma or chloasma, and it’s caused by a ramped-up production of melanin (skin pigment), explains Dr. Scola, who notes that some women develop similar patches of spots along their jawline or forehead. Typically the spots fade within a few months after you have the baby or stop taking hormones. In the meantime, the best way to prevent and/or reduce the rash is to slather on sunscreen.

When it’s a warning sign: If you’re not pregnant or using hormones—and especially if the rash is red and rough—it can signal lupus, a serious autoimmune disorder. “If the mask lasts for several days and you don’t think it’s just dry skin, definitely get it checked out,” says Dr. Scola.

To diagnose (or rule out) lupus, your doctor may test your blood for specific antibodies and/or refer you to a dermatologist or rheumatologist. Although there’s no cure for lupus, there are many medications that can keep the symptoms—which may also include joint pain, memory loss and severe fatigue—in check.

Mismatched or Changing Pupils

When it’s just strange: If you’ve had mismatched pupils for as long as you can remember, don’t sweat it. “Some people are born that way, and while it might make you more light-sensitive, it shouldn’t affect your vision in any way,” says James Applegate, MD, a family doctor in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

When it’s a warning sign: If you hit your head within the last 72 hours (even just a minor bump) or have a high fever and notice that your pupils suddenly start changing size or look mismatched, go straight to the ER, says Dr. Applegate. “Pupil changes following a head injury or during an illness can mean an aneurysm, a cerebral hemorrhage or meningitis, and all are life-threatening,” he explains. Same goes for pupil changes that occur following any type of surgery or are accompanied by other symptoms like pain, nausea or vision loss— it’s best to get checked out immediately.

Didn’t just have an accident or surgery but you definitely weren’t born with mismatched pupils? Make an appointment with your doctor. It’s probably nothing serious, but you could have a nerve disorder called Horner syndrome (in which the eye with the smaller pupil also has a droopy lid). The condition isn’t dangerous in and of itself, but sometimes it’s caused by a brain lesion, spinal cord injury or lung tumor. (If necessary, your doctor can check for these with an MRI or CT scan of the head, neck and chest.)

Discolored Fingernails

When it’s just strange: You may have heard that a smattering of white spots on your nails means you have a vitamin deficiency, but that’s just a myth, says Joseph Jorizzo, MD, professor of dermatology at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “White marks on your fingernails are usually related to impact,” he explains.

And don’t panic if you don’t remember the damaging incident: If the nail of a finger caught in a door or drawer gets damaged below the cuticle, the spots won’t be visible until the nail grows out several weeks or even months later.

When it’s a warning sign: If you have discoloration, ridges or other symptoms on both your fingernails and your toenails, see a dermatologist—it could be a fungus or psoriasis. And if your fingernails have a brownish discoloration under the nail bed, along with inflammation and torn cuticles, it’s probably a yeast infection, which needs to be treated. Also be suspicious about finger- and toenails that are naturally colored near the tip of the nail bed but appear dusky white starting about halfway down. “We call them ‘half and half ’ nails, and they can be a sign of kidney disease.”

Lastly, if you’re Caucasian and notice a black or bluish-black vertical streak (extending out from under the cuticle to the fingertip), it could be melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, so you’ll want to see a dermatologist as soon as possible, says Dr. Jorizzo.

Numb or Tingly Extremities

When it’s just strange: If you’re outside in chilly weather or swimming in a cool pool in the summer, you may notice tingling nerves in your hands, feet, fingers and toes. “It just means your nerves are reacting to the cold,” says Dr. Applegate. Pull on a pair of gloves, get out of the water, or head somewhere warmer and you should be just fine.

When it’s a warning sign: If the tingling doesn’t seem related to cold, you could have a pinched nerve in the neck or lower back—especially if the sensation runs all the way down one arm or leg. A pinched nerve can be caused by a ruptured disk or a bone spur that’s pressing on a nerve. While it’s certainly not life-threatening, it can be pretty uncomfortable. “It’s like hitting your ‘funny bone’ nonstop, so you get tingles in your nerves,” says Dr. Applegate. Rest, anti-inflammatory meds, physical therapy or even surgery may be needed to fix the problem. (If your internist can’t treat it herself, she’ll probably refer you to a neurologist, orthopedist or physiatrist.)

A tingly sensation in the extremities can also be a sign of diabetes, though usually this symptom only occurs once the disease has progressed. “Blood sugar levels that are consistently elevated can lead to neuropathy [nerve damage] and cause tingling, weakness or even pain,” Dr. Applegate says. So if you already have diabetes, tingling could mean that your blood sugar levels aren’t well-controlled. And if you haven’t yet been tested for the disease (and can’t figure out what else is causing the tingling), a blood test to measure your glucose levels is probably in order.

Numbness and tingling can also sometimes be signs of a heart attack, but if you don’t have at least one other telltale sign—such as chest pressure, nausea or feeling out of breath—you’re probably not having one. Still, a potential heart attack is nothing to play around with, says Dr. Applegate. “Anytime you think a symptom may indicate heart disease, act on it and call 911 ASAP.”

Unusually Colored Urine

When it’s just strange: Perfectly normal urine can be many shades of light yellow, or pink, orange, green or even light tan. So if you’ve been eating a rainbow of produce lately—i.e., carrots, asparagus, blackberries, beets—or taking a new medication or multivitamin, don’t be surprised if your pee reflects that, says Dr. Scola.

When it’s a warning sign: “Dark brown urine or urine that looks blood-tinged [rather than a more subtle pink] most often signals dehydration or a urinary tract infection, respectively,” says Dr. Scola. If your urine has been very dark for more than a day and you know mild dehydration isn’t the culprit (try drinking a few glasses of water and see what happens!), it’s worth seeing your physician.

Dark urine can also be a sign of kidney problems or liver disease, such as hepatitis or cirrhosis, which can be very serious (you may end up needing antiviral medications, dialysis to “clean” your blood or even a liver transplant). The sooner you find out what’s wrong, the better.

Bloody urine may mean a UTI, and you’ll need antibiotics to clear it up. In rare cases it could even indicate bladder cancer or kidney stones (hard mineral deposits that can be extremely painful).

If signs point to either of these conditions, your doctor may want to examine your bladder with a CT scan or cystoscopy—a test in which a miniature camera is threaded into your bladder.

Red Lacy Patterns on Your Skin

When it’s just strange: If your arms or legs look like you have a fishnet pattern tattooed on them, it’s probably something called livedo reticularis. Sounds alarming, but it really just means that your blood vessels are dilated to compensate for sluggish blood flow because you’re cold. “If the pattern temporarily disappears when you press on it or permanently goes away when you get warmed up, there’s nothing to worry about,” says Dr. Jorizzo.

When it’s a warning sign: If the pattern doesn’t disappear when your body temperature rises or when you apply pressure, it can be a sign of an autoimmune disorder, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, says Dr. Jorizzo. If your doctor thinks you might have one of these, he may order a skin biopsy or specific blood tests to check for these conditions. (If rheumatoid arthritis is a likely suspect, your doctor may also want to take X-rays of your joints to see if they’re swollen or damaged.)

Bulging Belly Button

When it’s just strange: If you’ve always had an “outie,” there’s nothing to stress over. Same goes for anyone who’s majorly pregnant: It’s normal for an innie to become a very pronounced outie at some point during the second trimester.

When it’s a warning sign: If you’re not pregnant, a bulging belly button can indicate that you’ve developed an umbilical hernia—meaning that a part of your intestine has pushed through a weak spot in your abdominal wall, says Dr. Scola.

This problem is most common among people who are overweight or do lots of heavy lifting and also among women who have previously been pregnant several times. “A hernia can be dangerous if it cuts off blood supply to part of the intestine, so you should see your physician soon to see if you need surgery,” Dr. Scola says. (Fortunately, the surgery needed to repair this kind of hernia is relatively simple.)

All photos by Shutterstock

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