If you suddenly sprouted a big, black mole, or couldn’t kick an itchy rashafter a few days, you’d make an appointment with a dermatologist. But not all skin problems are as obvious.
In fact, some that seem like no big deal might actually signal some pretty serious health conditions. Here, 6 common—and seemingly innocent—skin problems that require a visit to your dermatologist, stat
If that pimple-like bump on your face hasn’t budged after more than a couple weeks—and if it bleeds when you pick it—it might actually be a kind of skin cancer. (Here are 6 myths about skin cancer you shouldn’t believe.)
“I see so many patients who come in complaining of a pimple that won’t heal and it ends up begin a basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common forms of skin cancer,” says Bradley S. Bloom, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist with expertise in skin cancer surgery.
These types of non-melanoma skin cancer can show up anywhere on the body, but they usually surface where you’ve had the most sun exposure, like on your face, arms, and legs. They often look like a small zit or shiny, pearly bump, but they can also show up as a red patch that looks a lot like eczema, or even a patch of hardened, dry skin.
If your dermatologist suspects it might be skin cancer, he will perform a biopsy, an in-office procedure where he’ll remove the spot so it can be sent to a lab to check for cancerous cells. If it comes back positive, you’ll usually be treated with another in-office procedure: Mohs micrographic surgery, which removes any underlying layers of skin cancer, curing the condition, says Dr. Bloom.
It’s also possible that a sore pimple that doesn’t heal is actually Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterial infection that is resistant to many forms of antibiotics, says Bobby Buka, MD, section chief for the department of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
In addition to taking an antibiotic with the hope it’ll work, your doctor will also surgically drain the infected skin area, preventing the bacteria from tunneling its way into your body, where it could potentially cause a life-threatening infection, he says.
If you’ve been religiously using moisturizer on rough, scaly patches on your skin for more than a month or so without improvement, it might not be dry skin at all. Those patches may signal a pre-cancer called actinic keratosis (AK).
“These are often easier to feel than to see, and the texture is usually similar to fine sandpaper,” says Michael Swann, MD, a dermatologist and skin cancer surgeon in Springfield, MO.
AK usually pops up on your face, ears, scalp—especially if you don’t have a lot of hair—and other parts that have had a lot of sun exposure over the years. If you can see it, it usually resembles a path of rough, dry skin that may flake off, but comes back in the same spot. A good exfoliator or electronic face brush might make the spot smoother temporarily, but if it’s an AK, the roughness will keep coming back.
“Over time, these precancers can turn into squamous cell carcinomas,” says Dr. Swann. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, about 10% of AKs develop into cancer.
Your dermatologist will likely diagnose an AK on the spot—no biopsy needed—and treat it with liquid nitrogen, which destroys the damaged cells and helps the dry patch disappear.
You’ve probably experienced the burning, stinging, and unsightly peeling of chapped lips after a ski trip or an all-night makeout session. But recurrent pink, scaly patches around your mouth or lip line that don’t get better after 4 to 8 weeks of lip balm might signal actinic cheilitis, pre-cancerous lesions caused by sun exposure, says Tsippora Shainhouse MD, a clinical instructor of dermatology at the University of Southern California.
“Since most men don’t wear lip balms or lipsticks with sunscreen in them every day like many women do, they are at a greater risk for developing this condition,” she says. (These are the best lip balms for men.)
If your dermatologist suspects actinic cheilitis, she will likely biopsy a portion of the affected area to be sure. While only 10% of actinic cheilitis turn into squamous cell carcinoma, it’s tough to predict which ones will or won’t become cancerous. So your doctor will likely recommend some kind of treatment—like laser, chemical peel, or topical medication—which has the added bonus of potentially healing your symptoms, says Dr. Shainhouse.
Darkening of your skin folds could signal a condition called acanthosis nigricans, says Dr. Burka. Too much insulin in your blood can actual trigger a darkening discoloration of your skin, he says. So this condition can actual herald insulin resistance—a difficulty processing blood sugar—or even type 2 diabetes.
If you notice your skin folds growing darker, see your dermatologist. He or she will order a blood sugar panel to check for diabetes. Your dermatologist may prescribe a skin lightener to treat the dark spots, but treatment also involves tackling the bigger conditions, like controlling the diabetes and losing excess weight, since obesity can contribute to insulin issues. (Repeat after us: No more dieting. Ever. Instead, learn how to eat clean—with zero deprivation!—and watch the pounds drop off, with Your Metabolism Makeover.)
But if you’re noticing the darkening around your joints—say, by your knees or elbows—the discoloration may point to a condition called Addison’s disease, says Whitney Bowe, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist. Addison’s disease occurs when your adrenal glands produce insufficient amounts of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone.
If blood tests to check these hormone levels confirm Addison’s, your doctor will talk to you about hormone therapy to regulate your hormones. Once your hormones are under control, the skin discoloration should disappear.
If your brows are thinning—particularly the outside third of your arches—your doctor will likely order blood tests to see if you have an underactive thyroid gland, says Dr. Bowe. If they show a thyroid problem, you’ll likely take oral meds to restore your thyroid hormone levels, which should stop the thinning so that your eyebrows can slowly grow back.
Notice actual clumps of hair falling out, or hairless patches emerging on your skin? You might have alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition where your immune system suddenly sees your hair follicles as foreign and attacks them, causing hair to fall out, says Dr. Shainhouse.
Alopecia can happen in one or two spots—like a hairless patch on your leg—or it can become extensive, involving all of your scalp hair, she says.
You’re at higher risk of developing thyroid disease if you have alopecia, so it’s important you see your doctor if you’re experiencing those symptoms. He or she may order blood tests to check your thyroid hormone production, or do a small biopsy of the area to confirm the diagnosis. If your levels are off, your doctor will likely prescribe thyroid medication.
There’s no cure for alopecia, but your doctor may recommend corticosteroid shots or topical steroid creams, which will help stimulate hair growth. In some cases, the hair will grow back on its own. (Still, the cure for baldness may be close.)
Dropping a weight on your foot at the gym or catching your finger in the car door can cause bruising under your nail plate—which can not only hurt, but take a really long time to heal. However, if you notice a new brown or purple patch under one of your nails and can’t remember what could’ve caused it, or if you notice that what you think is a bruise doesn’t seem to be growing out, see your dermatologist, says Dr. Shainhouse.
“This can be a sign of melanoma, and there’s a good chance your doctor will biopsy the spot to be sure,” she says. (Here are 4 signs of melanoma.)
If you do hear the dreaded “M” word, the sooner you catch melanoma, the better. While this most severe form of skin cancer does spread, surgical removal of the spot and any surrounding cancer cells can get rid of it completely—before it becomes invasive.