Before you race off to the doctor for every lump or discoloration, remember that anomalies you’ve had for years are more likely to be a harmless part of your genetic makeup. Signs and symptoms that are unusual for you, or painful or debilitating, are more likely to be significant. (Signs are external indicators that can be seen or felt; symptoms are internal sensations, such as pain, that only the patient can perceive.)

Signs of diabetes show up all over the body, from bleeding gums to tingling feet to darkened skin patches on the neck and underarms.

Some of the most worrisome body signs are already well known, thanks to extensive education campaigns. Most women know to check their breasts regularly for lumps, dimples, swelling and discharge that can signify cancer, and to have regular mammograms.

Men can develop breast cancer too, with many of the same symptoms. Enlarged breasts in men, known as gynecomastia, generally indicates an imbalance of estrogen and testosterone, which can occur from puberty or aging — or it could be a sign of kidney disease, or a pituitary tumor.

Skin cancers have also gotten significant publicity. When evaluating a spot, remember “ABCDE”: It may be malignant if it has A, for an asymmetrical shape; B for a jagged or irregular border; C for a suspicious color; D for a diameter larger than a pencil eraser; and E for being elevated and uneven. Basal-cell carcinomas and squamous-cell carcinomas tend to be red to pink and crusty, and bleed easily.

Excess belly fat is becoming notorious as a sign of a heightened risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, gall-bladder disease and numerous cancers. Waist-to-hip ratios are especially telling: If a man’s waist is larger than his hips, or a woman’s waist is more than four-fifths her hip circumference, that’s a sign that dangerous visceral fat is surrounding an abdominal organ.

Sudden, unexplained weight loss can also be a sign of problems.

Thyroid disease can manifest itself in dry, brittle hair, brittle nails, and weight gain or loss. Losing hair on the rest of your body could be aging or menopause, or a metabolic disorder or circulatory problems.

Horizontal lines through the fingernails, called Beau’s Lines, sometimes appear when the body is particularly stressed. Nails tell other tales as well. White nail beds — the skin underneath the nail — can signify anemia. Nails that are white near the cuticle and red or brown near the tip can be a sign of kidney disease. Irregularly shaped brown or blue spots in the nail bed can be melanomas. Fingertips that are blue or clubbed can be a sign of lung disease — although generally, there would be more significant signs as well.

Many of the same signs occur in toenails. But the feet are critical for other reasons. Circulatory problems can manifest themselves as numbness and tingling in the feet; so can peripheral neuropathy, or damage to the nerves that often begins at the extremities. Both are signs of uncontrolled diabetes. With circulation compromised, even a minor scratch or sore on the feet can become infected easily; lack of sensation can make it easy to ignore, and gangrene can set in, requiring amputation. That’s why people with diabetes are urged to check their feet every day for any kind of scratch or lesion.

The mouth provides another window into overall health. Bulimia can leave telltale acid marks on the backs of teeth — and missing teeth can be a sign of poor nutrition, advanced gum disease or long-term drug use.

Some body signs are more statistical correlations than causal relationships. Short leg length has been linked to a higher risk for diabetes, atherosclerosis and heart disease, which could all be due to poor nutrition in utero or early childhood. Several studies have found that the shorter a man’s index finger in relation to his ring finger, the more aggressive he’s likely to be. One possible explanation is exposure to testosterone in the womb, but so far, that remains more a curiosity than a clue.

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