You perform a breast exam in the shower each month. You shoot off to the doctor every time you spot a new mole. But chances are you still don’t notice most of what your body is trying to tell you.
See, even the smallest of changes—from a new line on your fingernail to a bump on your eyelid—can be red flags for a host of health conditions, some of which are life-threatening, says Michael Smith, M.D., WebMD's chief medical editor.
And since your doctor sees you once a year (for 10 minutes, right?) it’s even more critical to be in tune with your body, according to Smith. “You know your body better than anyone else—even your doctor,” he says. “You know if something is not right or different.”
Here are five of the most surprising…
CHECK: YOUR FLOW
If you see: “Spotting” all month long.
It could mean: Most women chalk irregular vaginal bleeding up to stress, and that very well could be the cause. But so could endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or even cervical cancer, Smith says. When cervical cancer becomes invasive and begins to attack nearby tissues, woman can experience vaginal bleeding that occurs between periods, after sex, or after menopause.
Follow up: See your gyno. Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women, but annual Pap smears can slash your risk. During your examination, a Pap will screen for cervical cancer or precancerous cells, while a pelvic exam can help identify conditions such as endometriosis and uterine fibroids that can also contribute to irregular vaginal bleeding. If all checks out clear, you might want to ask if oral contraceptives are right for you to help regulate your menstrual cycle.
CHECK: YOUR NAILS
If you see: Dark lines on your nail beds.
It could mean: Mutating moles aren't the only signs of skin cancer—the disease can also develop under your nails. Yellowish, brown, or black stripes can all be signs of cell damage, possibly from melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, Smith says. In recent years, melanoma rates have been increasing most drastically in young women.
Follow Up: See your doctor, who may recommend a dermatologist. The good news? With early, localised detection and treatment, about 98 percent of cases are curable. While you’re there, talk to your doctor about your overall risk for melanoma. Fair skin, extended sun exposure, and having one or more blistering sunburns during childhood can all increase your chances. Remember, skin cancer can take decades to develop, so even if you use sunblock now, your let-it-burn beach days as a kid still put you at risk.
CHECK: YOUR COMPLEXION
If you see: Sprouting pimples or thick hair.
It could mean: Blame hormones—and polycystic ovary syndrome. The condition, marked by insulin resistance, irregular periods, and an overproduction of male sex hormones, can lead to oily, zitty skin and growth of thick hairs on your face, chest, stomach, back, thumbs, and toes. “The symptoms are almost consistent with puberty in men,” Smith says. Don’t be embarrassed. As many as one in 10 women of childbearing age have PcOS, according to the Office on Women's Health. It can be a risk factor for serious problems like infertility, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
Follow up: See your doctor for an evaluation. She may perform a pelvic exam, blood test, or vaginal ultrasound to diagnose the condition. While there’s currently no cure for PcOS, lifestyle changes can help manage symptoms, while combination birth control pills can decrease your body’s levels of androgens from the get-go.
CHECK: YOUR ARMPITS
If you see: A patch of rough, dark skin.
It could mean: Unless you’ve had a self-tanner slip-up, you could have diabetes. Excess insulin in your bloodstream can cause skin cells to multiply abnormally fast, leading to a buildup of tissue and melanin (a.k.a. skin pigment). This can make the skin under your arms feel thicker and look darker.
Follow Up: A simple blood test can determine whether you have the disease. Anyone 45 years or older should consider getting tested for diabetes, especially if you are overweight. If you are younger than 45, but are overweight and have one or more additional risk factors you should consider getting tested. Risk factors include having a family history of diabetes, high blood pressure, polycystic ovary syndrome, and giving birth to at least one baby weighing more than nine pounds.
CHECK: YOUR EYELIDS
If you see: Small, soft lumps that look white or waxy, and no amount of eye makeup remover is taking them away.
It could mean: These are small deposits of cholesterol under your skin, Smith says. Unfortunately, "by the time they appear, your cholesterol levels are probably 300 or more,” he says. (Cholesterol levels of under 200 are optimal.) And by clogging your arteries, high cholesterol levels put you at serious risk for heart disease.
Follow up: See your doctor for a cholesterol check, and ask about how you can reduce your cholesterol levels. Reducing them by just 10 percent slashes your heart disease risk by as much as a third, Smith says. Losing weight, exercising regularly, and eating a diet focused on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats can all help reduce your cholesterol—and heart disease risk. If your high cholesterol is hereditary and not managed by lifestyle behaviors, your doctor may prescribe drugs to bring your numbers down.