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Skin Conditions That Could Signify Something Sinister

Learn seven skin conditions that should not be ignored. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Our skin is an incredible organ that serves as a protective barrier from harmful substances. It has many vital roles like temperature control, production of vitamin D, preventing loss of moisture and more. Needless to say, taking care of our skin is essential to our overall health. Paying attention to warning signals like a rash, discoloration or new blemish could indicate a larger issue and ignoring changes can be detrimental to your well-being. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies who shares what to know about our skin and signs to watch out for.  Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Skin is Our Largest Organ

woman in her 40s skincare for wrinkles

Dr. Mitchell says, "That's right, skin covers the entire surface of our bodies and protects us from the outside world. It's made up of several layers, each with its unique purpose. The outermost layer, the epidermis, is rugged and waterproof. It helps keep harmful bacteria and toxins out while regulating body temperature. The dermis, located beneath the epidermis, contains hair follicles, sweat glands, and blood vessels. This layer helps to keep the body hydrated and provides nutrients to the epidermis. Finally, Hypodermis is the deepest layer of skin. It contains fat and connective tissue that help insulate the body and support the other layers of skin. Together, these three layers make up our largest organ – skin!

Without x-rays, CT scans, and more invasive tests and procedures, we cannot "see" what is going on in the body. However, it is safe to say that our skin can leave essential cues, and it is important to read these clues correctly and promptly.

Here are a few clues in the skin that you should never ignore, as they could indicate something sinister"


Dark Patchy Armpits

woman with deodorant at home

Dr. Mitchell explains, "The skin under the arms is sensitive and can quickly get irritated. When the skin is exposed to the sun, it can produce more melanin, which leads to darker skin. Shaving can also cause dark armpits because it removes the top layer of skin, making the area more prone to irritation. Deodorants and antiperspirants can also cause darkening of the skin under the arms because they contain aluminum and other chemicals that can irritate the skin.

Some medical conditions can cause darkening of the skin under the arms, such as hyperpigmentation and acanthosis nigricans. Acanthosis nigricans is a cutaneous condition characterized by thick, dark, velvety skin changes. It typically occurs in body folds, such as the back of the neck, underarms, and groin. While it can affect people of any age or race, it is most common in obese adults and children. Acanthosis nigricans is not harmful or contagious, but it may indicate an underlying medical condition. The most common cause of acanthosis nigricans is insulin resistance, often seen in people with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes. The condition can also be associated with certain hormonal disorders, such as Cushing's disease and polycystic ovary syndrome. In rare cases, acanthosis nigricans may be caused by certain medications or cancers. Treatment for acanthosis nigricans focuses on relieving symptoms and addressing the underlying cause. If the condition is due to obesity, weight loss and exercise may be recommended. Medications may also be prescribed to help improve insulin sensitivity or manage hormonal imbalances."


Inverted Nipples or Rashes On The Breasts

doctor examining woman breast

"There are a number of potential causes of inverted nipples, ranging from benign to more serious conditions," Dr. Mitchell states. "In some cases, the condition may be due to a build-up of scar tissue surrounding the milk ducts. This can happen due to nipple piercings, previous breast surgeries, or prolonged use of certain nipple creams or ointments. In other cases, the condition may be due to a constriction of the milk ducts, which can occur in response to an infection or trauma. Certain types of breast cancer can also cause inverted nipples, and it's best to err on the sign of caution and seek medication attention immediately."


Rashes On The Breast

Breast cancer self check

According to Dr. Mitchell, "Skin rashes on the breasts are usually harmless and often go away on their own within a few days. However, in some cases, they can indicate a more serious underlying condition. For example, rashes accompanied by itching, pain, redness, or swelling could indicate an allergic reaction. Rashes that last longer than a week or two or seem to be getting worse could also be signs of an infection, such as cellulitis or impetigo.

While a doctor should check any change in the appearance of the breast, there are certain skin rashes or changes that may indicate breast cancer. One such change is the development of a rash resembling an orange peel, peau d'orange. This rash is often accompanied by itching, redness, and swelling and can be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer. Other skin changes that may be indicative of breast cancer include dimpling, redness, itchiness, or scaling. Breast cancer can also cause the nipple to become inverted or to discharge fluid. If you notice any of these changes in your breasts, it is essential to seek medical attention as soon as possible."


Acute Onset Of Seborrhoeic Keratosis

Mature white-haired woman checking eye wrinkles in front of mirror.

"Seborrheic keratoses are noncancerous growths that commonly appear on the skin as people age," Dr. Mitchell states. "They're usually brown or black and can have a waxy, scaly, or crumbly texture. Though they're not dangerous, they can be unsightly, and people often want to get rid of them for cosmetic reasons.

The acute onset of multiple seborrheic keratoses, also known as the Leser-Trélat sign, is a possible indicator of underlying internal cancer. This is because cancerous cells sometimes release substances that promote the growth of seborrheic keratoses. However, it's important to remember that seborrheic keratoses are very common in healthy adults. For this reason, the Leser-Trélat sign is often over-diagnosed. If you have sudden onset of multiple seborrheic keratoses, it's essential to see a doctor so that any underlying cause can be ruled out."


Sudden Eruption Of A Raised, Itchy Rash

Woman Scratching an itch

Dr. Mitchell says, "Lichen planus is a skin condition that causes a rash. The rash is usually itchy and can be painful. It can also affect the mucous membranes, such as the mouth and genitals. The rash comprises small, purple bumps that may join together to form scale-like patches. Lichen planus is not contagious. The exact cause is unknown, but it is believed to be an autoimmune reaction.

Lichens planus has been associated with hepatitis. This liver disease can be caused by hepatitis B infection, hepatitis B vaccine, and, particularly, hepatitis C–induced liver insufficiency. People who have this disease may also have primary biliary cholangitis. This is a condition where the bile ducts in your Liver become inflamed. If you have either of these conditions, you may experience fatigue, itching, and yellowing of your skin. You may also lose weight and have joint pain. If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible."


Sudden Eruption Of Raised, Firm, Wax Colored Lesions

man with Chicken pox rash

Dr. Mitchell tells us, "Eruptive xanthomas are yellowish bumps that can appear suddenly on your skin. They're most often seen on your hands' back, buttocks, elbows, knees, or palms. Eruptive xanthomas sometimes occur in families. But they can also be symptoms of a more severe condition such as diabetes or high cholesterol.

These growths are fat cells that usually measure less than half an inch. They may be itchy but are not usually painful. You may have just a few lesions or hundreds. In some cases, eruptive xanthomas go away on their own. But if you have many of them or other symptoms accompany them, you should see your doctor.

Dyslipidemia is a severe condition because it means abnormal amounts of lipids, or fats, are in the blood. This can lead to an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, and other problems. The most common form of dyslipidemia is high cholesterol, which occurs when there is too much cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol is a substance that is needed by the body, but too much of it can be harmful. Too much cholesterol in the blood can build up on the walls of arteries and cause them to narrow. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Dyslipidemia can also cause inflammation of the arteries, which can also lead to heart disease. Treating dyslipidemia is crucial because it can help reduce the risk for these severe conditions."


Purple Discoloration Of Skin

Swollen feet

Dr. Mitchell explains, "Skin discoloration can have many causes, but the purple discoloration is usually a sign of something sinister. This is because purple discoloration is often caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood. When the blood doesn't have enough oxygen, it can turn a purplish color. A number of things can cause this, but it is often a sign of heart or lung disease. If you notice any purple discoloration on your skin, it is important to see a doctor find out what is causing it. It could be nothing serious, but it could also signify something more serious. Either way, it is best to get it checked out by a professional."

Dr. Mitchell says this "doesn't constitute medical advice and by no means are these answers meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it's to encourage discussions about health choices."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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