If you notice a white or greyish ring around the coloured part of the eyes, an ‘arcus senilis’, you could have circulatory problems. Startled, staring eyes showing the whites, meanwhile, are another symptom of overactive thyroid. Most of us know that yellow eyes are a sign of jaundice and very pale eyes a symptom of anaemia, but did you know that a burst blood vessel in the eye could mean high blood pressure? And a droopy eyelid (ptosis) could be a sign of muscle weakness caused by, for example, the chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease, myasthenia gravis.
You may be surprised at how much your mouth can give away without you talking. A shiny red tongue, for example, indicates anaemia, while one that resembles a strawberry could be a sign of scarlet fever. Recurrent mouth ulcers may be a sign of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or even non-specific urethritis (NSU). Ever noticed small purple spots on your lips? They’re a feature of a rare genetic condition called Peutz–Jeghers syndrome, which is linked with polyps in the gut.
Even your ears can have hidden clues to disease. If you have diagonal creases in your earlobes you could be more at risk of developing heart disease. Lumps in the earlobe (tophi) can be a sign of chronic gout, a type of arthritis that can cause severe pain, inflammation and swelling - often in the toes, ankles, knees and fingers.
Our skin, the largest organ in the body, often reflects problems elsewhere. Tiny broken blood vessels, which turn white on pressure, aka ‘spider naevi’ are common in pregnancy but can also be a sign of liver disease. People who seem to have a constant tan, without sun exposure, could have Addison’s disease, a rare disorder of the adrenal glands. Alternatively, this could be a sign of ‘haemochromatosis’; a condition where the body accumulates too much iron.
If you came to the surgery complaining of an intensely itchy blistering rash on your trunk and limbs, meanwhile, I’d suspect dermatitis herpetiformis, a condition usually linked with coeliac disease.
Legs shaped like inverted champagne bottles can be a sign of a rare inherited condition of muscular weakness called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT). Purple lumps on the shins, like raised bruises, can indicate anything from being on the pill to sarcoidosis, a chronic inflammatory condition.
So if you ever visit your GP with one complaint and leave needing tests for another, go with it. They might be on to something!