10 minor skin issues that may mean serious problems

April 11, 2017
Do you have a dry patch of skin that won’t go away with moisturizer? A rash or a pimple that has been there for weeks? Skin conditions that seem innocent can actually signal something much more serious. 
Inflammation and changes in texture or color can result from infection or an allergy. A chronic skin condition may even be genetic in nature. If you think you have one of the common skin problems discussed here, your safest action is to see a dermatologist right away.

A pimple that won’t go away or bleeds

If you have a pimple that sticks around for longer than a couple of weeks and bleeds when picked, it could be a sign of nonmelanoma skin cancer. Specifically, these pearly bumps could either be basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common forms of skin cancer. These cancers typically appear where you’ve had the most sun exposure: Your face, arms, and legs.

If skin cancer is suspected, your dermatologist will perform a biopsy to check for cancerous cells. If the test comes back positive, you’ll usually be treated with Mohs micrographic surgery, an in-office procedure to remove underlying layers of skin cancer.

Chapped lips that won’t heal

Sore, pink, scaly patches around your mouth that don’t get better after a couple of months might be actinic cheilitis (AC), a type of precancerous lesion. Sometimes called "farmer's lip" or "sailor's lip," AC is caused by longtime sun exposure. Actinic cheilitis is more common in men, elderly or fair-skinned people and is also associated with tobacco use.

While only 10 percent of actinic cheilitis turns into squamous cell carcinoma, it is important to know whether your condition is suspect. If AC is suspected, a biopsy will be ordered. If the test comes back positive, likely treatments include laser removal, a chemical peel or topical medications.

Eczema or dry, rough skin

Another potential manifestation of non-melanoma skin cancer is a patch of rough, hard, dry skin that resembles eczema. This can indicate basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, which develop as a result of sun exposure. If the patches are biopsied and the test results come back positive, these cancers can also be removed in-office via Mohs micrographic surgery to eliminate the various layers of the cancerous cells.

A patch of dry skin that moisturizer won’t fix

If you have rough, flaky patches on your skin for longer than a month, and moisturizer isn’t improving the condition, it may not be a simple case of dry skin. Sandpaper-like patches on your face, ears or scalp could be a precancer called actinic keratosis (AK). About 10 percent of these precancers can turn into squamous cell carcinomas, but a dermatologist can treat an AK in-office relatively easily with the careful application of liquid nitrogen.

Dark spot under a nail that won’t grow out

If you see a brown or purple spot under one of your nails or see something that looks like a bruise that isn’t going away, see your dermatologist immediately. Lingering spots under the nail can be a sign of melanoma, one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer. Doctors can perform biopsies on any questionable dark spots, and if the tests come back positive, surgical removal of the spots and surrounding cells in question can resolve troublesome areas of concern before they become more serious.

Darkening skin in neck, groin, or armpits

Darkening of your skin folds could signal a condition called acanthosis nigricans, where too much insulin in your blood can trigger a skin discoloration. If you happen to notice that your skin folds are getting progressively darker, you may be experiencing insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes. The best course of action in this circumstance is to see your dermatologist and ask about a blood sugar test to check for diabetes.

Darkening skin around the joints

When the skin around your knees or elbows starts to become discolored, this may be one of the first signs of Addison’s disease. Addison’s disease is caused by the adrenal glands producing insufficient amounts of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone.  If blood tests confirm Addison’s, you may undergo a course of hormone replacement therapy to regulate your hormones. Once your hormones are back in balance, the skin discoloration should go away.

Thinning eyebrows  

If your eyebrows are thinning, your doctor may order blood tests to see if you have an underactive thyroid gland or hypothyroidism. If a thyroid problem is diagnosed, you may be put on oral medication to restore your thyroid hormone levels. This treatment should stop the thinning so that your eyebrows can slowly grow back to normal.

Hair loss

When clumps of hair are falling out, or hairless patches are showing up on your skin, this could be alopecia areata. This form of localized balding is an autoimmune response that attacks the hair follicles, for which there is no cure, but it can be treated to relieve symptoms and further worsening. Because patients with alopecia are at higher risk of developing thyroid disease, it’s important to see a doctor about similar hair loss conditions. Your dermatologist might request blood tests to check thyroid hormone production or a biopsy of the area affected to determine the appropriate treatment. If the presence of alopecia areata is confirmed, thyroid medication or corticosteroid shots are commonly prescribed to help relieve symptoms.

Rash with fever and chills

If you or someone in your family has a red rash on wrists, ankles, arms or legs, accompanied by a fever and chills, see a doctor about the possibility of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. This tick-borne disease, while potentially fatal, can be treated successfully. Since it looks so similar to other types of rashes, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis as soon as possible.

Remember, while the majority of skin problems are not life-threatening, it’s a good idea to see a doctor if you have any of these symptoms, or if you just want to make sure you’re staying healthy. See our list of providers to find a dermatologist or physician who can help answer any of your skin-related questions.

Topics: Wellness