8 Body Signs Women Should Heed

by Joan Liebmann-Smith, Ph.D. and Jacqueline Nardi Egan

When we have persistent pain, fever, or bleeding, it's usually a wake-up call that something's seriously wrong and we should see a doctor. But when our bodies send us more subtle signs, such as hair loss, droopy eyelids, or excessive gas, we tend to write them off as cosmetic or minor concerns and try to ignore or cover them up. However, if you turn a blind eye to nasty nodules, a deaf ear to strange sounds, or your nose up at odd smells, you may be missing important warning signs of various diseases and disorders.

Following are 8 subtle body signs that may indicate a serious health problem.


While thinning hair in women can be a sign of female-pattern baldness, an inherited condition, it can also indicate a nutritional deficiency or a type of diabetes related to excess androgens. If you suddenly start noticing lots of hair in your drain or on your pillow, it may suggest a possible hormonal disorder such as hypopitituitarism, or more commonly, hyperthyroidism. Other signs of an over-active thyroid include weight loss, jitteriness, excessive hunger and thirst, and heat intolerance. One of the most common but often under-diagnosed autoimmune diseases, hyperthyroidism is 7 times more likely to strike women than men. The good news is that it's easily treatable.


Hair sprouting in undesirable places, especially on the face and chest, may indicate a hormonal imbalance from such conditions as Cushing's syndrome or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Cushing's is a rare condition that affects more women than men and usually strikes between the ages of 20 and 50. Weight gain, fat on the upper back ("buffalo hump") and torso but thin arms and legs, round face, irregular periods, and fatigue are other common signs. PCOS is much more common, affecting 6% to 8% of women of childbearing age, and is a major cause of infertility. Other signs include acne and being overweight.

Both conditions are usually treatable with drugs. And while having some facial hair is fairly common during menopause because of the decrease in estrogen and increase in androgen, a lot of facial or body hair in postmenopausal women can in some cases signal the presence of ovarian cysts or ovarian cancer.


If you find yourself shivering year round, you may be suffering from hypothyroidism, one of the most under-diagnosed conditions in women. Indeed, it's estimated that more than half of the cases of go undiagnosed. This is very unfortunate since an under-active thyroid causes a variety of unpleasant signs such as weight gain, constipation, dry hair, skin, and nails.

Hypothyroidism is much more common in women than men and usually affects them over the age of 50. Like other hormonal disorders, it can be treated with medication.


The skin on our eyelids, as well as under our eyes, naturally sags as we get older. Droopy eyelids can also be another warning sign of hypothyroidism, which tends to affect older women. In younger women, however, droopy eyelids is one of many symptoms of signal myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune, neuromuscular disease that is more common in women than men. It tends to strike women between the ages of 20 and 40 (and men over 60). Other signs may include double vision, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, and muscle weakness. If you only have one droopy eyelid, it may be due to Bell's palsy, a temporary facial paralysis, or Horner's syndrome, a nerve-damage disorder. If one eyelid suddenly droops, it can be a serious warning sign of a stroke.


In winter, many women notice that their eyes and skin are dry and their mouths are parched as a result of 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 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, and can damage the digestive and reproductive systems. Although there is no cure, early detection and treatment can help alleviate the symptoms and help stop the progression of the disease.


A deep, husky voice in a woman is often the result of heavy smoking. But a chronically hoarse or gravelly voice can also signal gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), commonly known as reflux. It can also be a sign of iron deficiency anemia, as well as a host of serious autoimmune conditions, including hypothyroidism, myasthenia gravis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjögren's syndrome. A husky voice may signal a hormonal imbalance, and many women notice their voices deepening during or after menopause. Lastly, chronic hoarseness can be a warning sign of benign or malignant growths on the vocal cords, throat, mouth, or neck.


Many women get swollen breasts before their periods and when they're pregnant. But if you have a swollen breast that's red or discolored and feels warm, it may be a 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 other forms of breast cancer, most women with IBC do not have a breast lump. The skin of the breast may also be dimpled like the skin of an orange, and there may be breast tenderness, itching, or aching. With early diagnosis and treatment, more women are surviving this deadly form of cancer.


Excessive gas can cause flatulence, not to mention embarrassment. When the gas doesn't get released, our bellies become distended and we feel bloated. Being gassy or bloated may be a sign that you have lactose intolerance or food allergies. It can also be an indication of some serious gastrointestinal conditions such as gallstones and irritable bowel syndrome, or more rarely, cancer of the digestive system.

Bloating can also be an early warning sign of ovarian cancer, one of the deadliest and most under-diagnosed cancers in women. Other early warning signs include pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and feeling a frequent or urgent need to urinate. The prognosis is good if diagnosed early. Unfortunately, most cases - 80% - aren't caught early enough to save a woman's life.

The bottom line is if you notice any of these 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.

NOTE FROM EDITOR: This article is not intended to diagnose illness or provide medical advice. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms discussed in this article, it is important to see your doctor.

Joan Liebmann-Smith, Ph.D., is a medical sociologist and award-winning medical writer. Her articles have appeared in American Health, Ms., Newsweek, Redbook, Self, and Vogue, and she has appeared on numerous television talk shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Today Show.

Jacqueline Nardi Egan is a medical journalist who specializes in developing and writing educational programs with and for physicians, allied health professionals, patients, and consumers. She is also a former medical editor of Family Health magazine. Visit www.bodysignsbook.com for more info.

Joan Liebmann-Smith, Ph.D. and Jacqueline Nardi Egan are the authors of: Body Signs; Bantam Dell December 2007; $25.00US/ $30.00CAN; 978-0-553-80507-9 - available at all booksellers.

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