From blistered skin to inflamed gums, minor ailments may be symptoms of more serious health issues. Make sure you can read your body’s silent signs.
Silent signs that you might have gut issues:
Damage to your teeth
“When tooth enamel is very thin, we usually guess one of two things,” says Danyal Dehghani, a dentist in Toronto. “Either the person is eating a lot of acidic food or something is wrong with their gastrointestinal reflex.”
While your genetic makeup does influence your teeth, enamel issues can signify acid reflux-the backward flow of gastric juices into the esophagus. This tends to erode the back of the teeth (in contrast to the effects of acidic drinks, such as pop, which cause more general deterioration throughout the mouth).
Other reflux symptoms include a persistent sore throat, coughing, unexplained wheezing or a foul, sour taste in your mouth. If you or your dentist notices any of these indicators, see a doctor or a gastrointestinal specialist. In rare cases, untreated reflux can cause esophageal damage or a condition known as Barrett’s esophagus-a risk factor for esophageal cancer.
Irritated and blistered skin
Intensely itchy patches across your elbows, knees, bottom, back or scalp may indicate celiac disease, an autoimmune condition wherein consuming gluten causes the body to release antibodies that damage the small intestine.
When these antibodies accumulate in the skin, they can cause a telltale rash, known as dermatitis herpetiformis. According to the Canadian Celiac Association, this condition can affect 10 to 15 per cent of people with the disease-many of whom may have no digestive symptoms.
Unlike people with other forms of celiac, patients who have dermatitis herpetiformis don’t require an endoscopic biopsy to get a definitive diagnosis. A dermatologist can do a skin biopsy to determine whether certain antibodies are present.
A gluten-free diet should help the rash disappear and will work to ward off other long-term damage caused by the disease, such as osteoporosis or cancer of the small intestine.
“Sometimes Crohn’s disease takes years to diagnose because the symptoms may be amorphous or subtle,” says Dr. Jeffrey P. Baker, a gastroenterologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. One particular strain, perianal Crohn’s, causes bleeding, pain and abscesses in the anal region.
“I’ve heard people say they have hemorrhoids,” says Dr. Baker, “but when I’ve examined it, I’ve said, ‘No, this is Crohn’s disease.’” If you experience any of these concerns, get a professional diagnosis.
While not everyone with perianal issues has Crohn’s, Dr. Baker warns that the disease can pop up years after the successful treatment of symptoms and, if untreated, can lead to nutrient deficiencies, require surgery and/or increase your risk of developing colon cancer.
Silent signs that you might have brain issues:
Random bursts of anger
Depression doesn’t always involve weeping or lying listlessly on the couch. More than half of patients with the condition express irritability and anger-in fact, according to a 2013 analysis conducted at the University of California San Diego, those symptoms are associated with a more severe, longer-lasting form.
If you’re constantly snapping at your spouse or if the slightest annoyance gets your heart racing-and these reactions have lasted for more than two weeks-you may be dealing with a depressive disorder.
Changes in handwriting
When you think of Parkinson’s disease, you probably picture tremors, but a more telling early indicator (of certain varieties) is handwriting that suddenly gets much smaller. Handwriting analysis was able to identify patients in the early stages of Parkinson’s more than 97 per cent of the time, a 2013 Israeli study found.
“In the years prior to a formal diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, a person’s handwriting can become cramped; the letters will start to shrink,” says Dr. Judes Poirier, professor of medicine and psychiatry at McGill University.
Parkinson’s occurs when nerve cells in the brain become damaged or die off. As a result, they stop producing as much dopamine, a chemical that triggers the nervous system to create movement. This causes muscle stiffness in the hands and fingers, as well as perceptual-motor slowness, which affects handwriting.
Other early indications of the condition can include a loss of smell (if you stop noticing pungent cologne and aren’t drawn to the aroma of mouth-watering food, take heed), and intense dreams that cause you to thrash and kick in your bed.
When any of these symptoms last more than a couple of weeks, see a neurologist. The earlier the disease is diagnosed, and the sooner you get control of the symptoms, the better your quality of life will be.
Silent signs that you might have heart issues:
Loud snoring is a common symptom of sleep apnea, which is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. But snoring itself may play a significant role in cardiovascular issues. A 2014 study published in the journal The Laryngoscope found that even among patients without sleep apnea, snoring was linked to the thickening of the lining of the carotid artery (a main supplier of blood to the brain).
“We think the arteries are reacting to the vibration of the snoring, since they’re very close to the throat,” says study co-author Dr. Kathleen Yaremchuk, chair of the department of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. That thickening in these important blood vessels is a precursor to arterial plaque buildup, which means that snoring can be considered a risk factor for the progression of cerebrovascular occurrences.
Men over the age of 45 with severe erectile dysfunction-but who didn’t show signs of heart disease-were up to 60 per cent more likely to be hospitalized for heart problems than those with no erectile issues, according to a 2013 Australian study that followed subjects over a four-year period.
The exact cause is unknown, but one possible explanation is that the arteries supplying the penis are smaller than those elsewhere in the body. That means they’re usually more sensitive to problems in blood-vessel linings and may highlight concerns even before a man experiences other overt cardiovascular issues.
“Many men just want to get a prescription and avoid discussing the problem with their doctor,” says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist in New York City. “But it’s really important that they not dismiss it and get evaluated for heart disease.”
If men have other risk factors, such as high cholesterol, diabetes or a family history of heart disease, the doctor may recommend advanced screening tests, such as a coronary calcium scan.
A 2010 study funded by the National Institutes of Health and undertaken by Columbia University connected levels of periodontal bacteria with the prevalence of hypertension. While Euan Swan, manager of dental programs at the Canadian Dental Association, emphasizes that there’s not yet enough concrete evidence that one condition causes the other, he does say that there is an association between the two.
Treating gum disease was linked to fewer hospitalizations among people with heart disease or type 2 diabetes, according to a 2014 American Journal of Preventive Medicine study. Frequent cleanings (every three to six months) by a dentist can usually keep early-stage periodontal inflammation under control.
Silent signs that you might have hormonal issues:
Frequent bathroom trips
People with type 2 diabetes have a much harder time converting glucose into energy due to issues with the hormone insulin. As a result, sugar builds up in the bloodstream, where it inflicts damage on blood vessels and nerves, says Dr. Ashita Gupta, an endocrinologist at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. A diabetic’s kidneys try to get rid of that excess glucose by flushing it out through urine.
“You’re going to the bathroom more frequently-and producing much more when you go,” says Dr. Gupta. You may find yourself getting up a few times during the night to pee. And since you’re urinating so much, you may be thirstier or dealing with dry mouth.
Ask your doctor about getting a hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) test, which measures average blood glucose over three months in anyone who has a normal red blood cell count. “The sooner type 2 diabetes is diagnosed, the more likely you can reverse it with lifestyle changes such as diet, weight loss and exercise,” explains Gupta.
Feeling drowsy or sluggish? It could be a sign of hypothyroidism-a decrease in thyroid hormones. Recent studies indicate that one in 10 Canadians are living with a thyroid condition of one type or another, and it’s estimated that 200 million people worldwide have some form of thyroid disease.
“The early signs of the condition are symptoms of fatigue that may be accompanied by minor weight gain, depressed mood and an inability to concentrate. But there isn’t a specific sign or symptom. Rather, there’s a constellation of symptoms that point to hypothyroidism,” explains Dr. Andrée Boucher, endocrinologist and medical director of the inter-professional thyroid cancer team at the Centre hospitalier de l’Universite de Montreal (CHUM).
Hypothyroidism becomes more prevalent with age, according to Dr. Nicole van Rossum, endocrinologist and director of the endocrinology department at the Integrated University Health Centre and Social Services of the Eastern Townships in Quebec.
Telltale signs include constipation, dry skin and intolerance to cold. “Thyroid hormones control the body’s metabolism: body heat, heart rate, intestinal function, menstrual cycle, et cetera,” she explains. “These hormones are in every cell and regular the basic functions. When there are fewer of them, everything slows down.”