Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Be Your Own Health Advocate: 5 Body Signs Women Should Heed

Having persistent pain, fever or bleeding are usually wake-up calls that something's medically wrong and we should see a doctor. But we sometimes write off subtle or unsightly signs as mere annoyances or cosmetic concerns that we can cover up or ignore. Here are five body signs that women shouldn't overlook:

1. Too Much Facial or Body Hair
Hair sprouting in undesirable places, especially on the face and chest (hirsutism), often signals a hormonal imbalance from such conditions as Cushing's syndrome and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). In fact, PCOS affects 6 to 8 percent of women of childbearing age, and is a major cause of infertility. Other signs of PCOS include acne and being overweight.

Cushing's is a much rarer condition that usually strikes women (and sometimes men) between the ages of 20 and 50. Weight gain, fat on the upper back (aka buffalo hump) with thin arms and legs, round face, irregular periods and fatigue are other common signs. Depending on the cause, various treatments can help correct the hormonal imbalances for both PCOS and Cushing's. Having some facial hair is also fairly common during menopause, when estrogen decreases and androgen increases. However, a lot of facial or body hair in postmenopausal women can signal ovarian cysts or even ovarian cancer.

2. Feeling Cold All the Time
If you often are cold when others aren't, you may be suffering from an under-active thyroid (hypothyroidism), one of the most under-diagnosed conditions in women. Indeed, more than half of the cases of go undiagnosed. This is very unfortunate since an under-active thyroid causes a plethora of unpleasant signs including weight gain, bags under the eyes or droopy eyelids, constipation, and dry hair, skin and nails. Hypothyroidism is much more common in women than men and usually affects those over the age of 50. It can be treated hormonally.

3. Dry Eyes, Mouth and Skin
In winter, many women notice that their eyes and skin are dry and their mouths are parched due to low humidity and over-heated rooms. Mucous membranes can also become dry as a side effect of various medications, as well as from the loss of estrogen that normally accompanies aging. But dry eyes, mouth and other mucous membranes including the vagina, can also signal Sjorgren's syndrome, a potentially serious autoimmune disease that primarily affects women in their 40s and 50s.

Joint inflammation or tenderness is another common sign. Although Sjorgren's is not rare, it often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years. Unfortunately it's a progressive disease that, without treatment, can cause eye damage, dental decay and gum disease, as well as damage to the digestive and reproductive systems. There is no cure, but early detection and treatment can help alleviate the symptoms and help stop the progression of the disease.

4. Abdominal Bloating
Occasional abdominal bloating can be due to a number of digestive conditions such as lactose intolerance and other food sensitivities. However, abdominal bloating or a distended abdomen that lasts more than a few weeks can be an early -− and sometimes the only −- warning sign of ovarian cancer, one of the deadliest cancers in women. Other signs may include difficulty eating or feeling full quickly after eating or having frequent or urgent needs to urinate. About 80 percent of ovarian cancers have spread (metastasized) before they're diagnosed, but if detected and treated early the prognosis can be good.

5. A Discolored, Swollen Breast
Many women get swollen breasts before their periods and when they're pregnant. But if you have one swollen breast that's red or discolored and feels warm, it may be a warning sign of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), a rare but very aggressive form of breast cancer. Unfortunately, IBC is often misdiagnosed by doctors as an infection or even an insect bite. And, unlike with other forms of breast cancer, most women with IBC do not have a breast lump. Their breast may also be dimpled like the skin of an orange, and may be tender, itchy, or achy. With early diagnosis and treatment, more women are now surviving this deadly form of breast cancer.

If you notice any of these or other disturbing signs, be sure to mention them to your doctor as soon as possible. He or she can determine whether it's something you can safely ignore or something that warrants further diagnosis or treatment.


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