Leslie Doane was travelling in Guatemala when she noticed her skin and eyes taking on a yellowish tinge.
“I remember looking in a mirror at the whites of my eyes and I thought, ‘That’s not right, that’s not normal. They look really yellow. Am I sick?’” recalls Doane. “I knew that was a sign of hepatitis, but I’d had the Havrix vaccine for Hep A.”
She visited a clinic and a blood test confirmed she’d contracted Hepatitis A, a highly contagious viral liver disease transmitted through ingestion of contaminated food or water, or exposure to people with the illness through close personal contact, such as caring for an infected friend. After a couple months of extreme fatigue and lots of rest, Doane’s energy levels rebounded, and her jaundice (the yellowing of skin and eyes) receded. Here’s more on why your eyes hold valuable clues to your overall health.
What is jaundice?
Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, known as jaundice, is the classic skin symptom for hepatitis or liver disease. Patients may also experience severe itching. Hepatitis C can also cause scaly skin rashes, or even necrotic ulcers caused by a kind of anemia that develops as a reaction to the virus.
What to know about hepatitis
The word hepatitis means “liver inflammation,” and it’s caused by a virus that’s transmitted through the oral-fecal route (Hepatitis A), semen contact during sex or blood contact from a transfusion or sharing needles (Hepatitis B and C). It can also be passed from mother to child during pregnancy. In most cases Hepatitis A clears up on its own, but Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, which is the most common form of the disease in Canada, can become chronic diseases that eventually cause cirrhosis and liver failure.
“People should ask for screening for Hepatitis B and C and they should have their liver biochemistry checked. The public has to be proactive in what they ask their doctors to do,” says Dr. Eric Yoshida, a gastroenterologist and Chairman of the Canadian Liver Foundation Medical Advisory Committee. It’s crucial to catch Hepatitis B and C early, as many people won’t have any symptoms until the liver becomes cirrhotic.
Why monitoring your skin is so important.
Our skin is more than just our covering. It is the body’s largest organ, and as such, is synergistically connected to other organs through our lymphatic, nervous and circulatory systems. Its size, visibility and accessibility often make it the first place that symptoms of internal disease show up.
“There are so many skin manifestations of disease, whether you’re talking about liver disease, kidney disease, autoimmune disorders, endocrine disorders, malignancy. Almost every disease of organs has a skin symptom,” says Dr. Lynne Robertson, a dermatologist and clinical associate professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Dermatology, at the University of Calgary. Learn more on what your skin is trying to tell you.
We’ve been taught for years to monitor our skin and look for differences in moles that could indicate skin cancer. Not to add to your daily post-shower regimen, ladies, but changes in colour, texture or feeling on the skin’s surface — in the form of rashes, growths or sensations such as itching — should also be checked out. And it doesn’t stop with just the skin; alterations in the nails or with hair growth (or loss) can also be a tip-off that something’s not right internally.
“One of the things I really love about my job is that a lot of it is detective work,” says Dr. Marcie Ulmer, a cosmetic and medical dermatologist with Pacific Derm in Vancouver. “It’s like a window into one’s health — the skin, the hair and even the nails can provide clues to what’s going on inside.” Next, find out the health secrets your doctor can tell just by looking at you.