You're showering after a workout at the gym when you notice something strange. There's a weird rash on your leg, a bump on your navel or maybe just a couple of indentations on your nail. It definitely isn't normal.
But is it a sign of something serious?
Knowing what your body is trying to tell you isn't easy, especially when it comes to more unusual symptoms like these. In some instances, such as a proclivity for sneezing when exposed to sunlight, there's nothing to worry about. It's simply a reflex. A diagonal crease on your earlobe, however, could be a signal that you're at an increased risk for coronary heart disease or diabetes.
But putting off dealing with what's wrong has inevitable costs, whether it's the loss of precious time that could have been spent fighting an aggressive disease or $260 billion in lost productivity. That's the estimated annual price tag of health problems among working-age Americans and their families, according to a 2005 study by The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation for health care research.
That's why, experts say, it's crucial that you pay close attention to changes — ranging from subtle to strange — in your body. And don't hesitate to do some research or, more importantly, share them with your doctor.
"I believe in taking control of your health," says Joan Liebmann-Smith, a medical sociologist and co-author of the new book "Body Signs." "By getting more familiar with your body and the bodies of your loved ones, you could prevent things from happening."
Liebmann-Smith speaks from experience. Shortly after having her daughter 25 years ago, she began rapidly losing weight and frequently felt hungry, thirsty and hot. While she sensed something was wrong, her family and doctors told her that this was perfectly normal for a new mom. Then, a friend noticed a lump on Liebmann-Smith's neck. It turns out she had an advanced case of hyperthyroidism, a condition caused by an overactive thyroid gland, which can be fatal if ignored.
Liebmann-Smith wrote her book, she says, to help others decode their symptoms, from a gurgling stomach — which is usually a healthy sign that your digestive system is working well — to excessive hiccuping, an indication that fluid or even a tumor might be irritating your diaphragm.
If you want to get better at knowing what's going on with your body, consider beginning with your skin.
"If you have healthy skin, fresh-looking skin, most likely the internal parts of you are looking similar," says Dr. Wilma Bergfeld, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and head of dermatologic research at the Cleveland Clinic.
On the other hand, skin, hair and nail changes, she says, can signal a number of health issues, including lupus and gastrointestinal problems. Nails that curve downward, known as clubbed nails, could be a sign that your body isn't getting enough oxygen, while nails that curve upward may indicate a nutritional deficiency. Notice a stripe of discolored or de-pigmented hair on your head? It could be due to ulcerative colitis, a disease that causes inflammation and sores in the lining of the rectum and colon. That red patch on your arm could be a sign of psoriasis, but it could also be a passing problem, such as prickly heat.
Starting to obsess over a symptom? Don't.
Dr. Sharon Lewin, a New York-based internist and infectious-disease specialist, says it can be hard to strike the right balance in terms of paying attention to your body's signs because there are so many. In her office, she sees lots of New Yorkers with high stress levels who notice every nuance in their bodies and are in constant fear that something is wrong. But then she's also got patients who, fearing the worst, ignore symptoms for as long as possible.
Whatever personality you have, Lewin recommends searching for a doctor who will be willing to take your call when you do notice something out of the ordinary and help you figure out if it's worth a visit.
"It always comes back," she says, "to having a doctor that you trust."