Itchy, irritated, or inflamed skin is certainly no fun, but did you know that skin troubles could be related to other health problems?
In many cases, skin conditions are linked to processes occurring throughout the body, and this means they can become risk factors that set you up for other types of illness or injury, says Jonathan Silverberg, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Northwestern University. "The connections are not something patients should ignore or overlook."
Here are four ways skin conditions can go deeper.
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Eczema is a chronic inflammatory condition known for causing red, itchy patches of skin, but it's also been linked to sleep disturbances, joint problems, and other injuries. Dr. Silverberg was co-author of a JAMA Dermatology study published earlier this year that found that people with eczema who'd experienced a flare-up in the last year were more likely than those without the condition to have experienced a bone or joint injury, like a fracture, as well.
"There's a well established association between eczema and sleep disturbances, as a result of its chronic itch, and patients who are sleep deprived are generally at higher rates of traumatic injuries like falls or automobile accidents," which might explain why they were more likely to experience a bone fracture, Dr. Silverberg says.
But it's not just drowsiness from a lack of zzzs: "If you're crossing the street and you're distracted by itching—or you're in a fog because you've taken a sedating antihistamine to treat that itch—you're going to be at higher risk for these types of things," Dr. Silverberg adds.
On top of that, in severe cases, eczema is treated with oral steroids, which over time can affect bone density, possibly contributing further to the possibility of injury. Thankfully, Dr. Silverberg says that intermittent treatment with over-the-counter topical steroids, which is far more common, doesn't pose the same risks.
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An autoimmune disorder in which cells multiply too quickly and form shiny scales on the skin's surface, psoriasis often occurs alongside arthritis or other joint diseases, in particular psoriatic arthritis. "They're all related to a common inflammatory pathway," Dr. Silverberg says. "The good news is that a lot of the newer treatments that are remarkably effective for psoriasis also work well for psoriatic as well as rheumatoid arthritis."
Recent studies have also linked psoriasis to heart disease, stroke, and poor blood pressure management. While doctors aren't sure of the exact relationship between these conditions, they suspect that inflammation plays a role here, too.
People with psoriasis—along with eczema and other skin conditions like scleroderma, which causes hardening of the skin—are also more likely than people without psoriasis to be smokers, heavy drinkers, or to suffer from depression or anxiety. "These disorders are potentially the effects of having a chronic, debilitating, and very visible disorder, and they may actually trigger disease or worsen prognosis," Dr. Silverberg says.
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This is a darkening or discoloration of the skin on your legs and ankles caused by varicose veins or another circulatory problem that leads to swelling that blocks blood flow to the skin. Stasis dermatitis can be a symptom of underlying diabetes and its effects on your body's circulatory system, Dr. Silverberg says.
Diabetes can also cause skin infections, intense itching, slow wound healing, and diabetic dermopathy, also known as shin spots; in fact, patients with ongoing unexplained itching or skin troubles are often tested for diabetes. "That just emphasizes the importance of following up with your doctor if you have a rash or a [skin] issue that's not improving on its own," Dr. Silverberg adds.
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People suffering from vitiligo, an auto-immune disease that causes white spots (basically spots with zero pigmentation) to appear on the face and body, can have symptoms get worse when they are under stress. "I tell patients that stress is not causing their skin disease; certainly there's some underlying predisposition to begin with,"Dr. Silverberg says. "But once those risk factors are there, stress can certainly be a trigger."
The stress-skin connection is perhaps most well documented with vitiligo, but stress is a factor in psoriasis, eczema, and possibly even run-of-the-mill acne. (Though Silverberg cautions that it's difficult to prove the link between stress and pimples because they're both so common.)
Finally, there's some good news for vitiligo sufferers, too: According to a 2010 discovery by University of Colorado researchers, they may have a lower risk of developing melanoma.
The bottom line: your skin can tell you a lot about your health risks, so be sure to listen.