60-Second Health Checks
Got a minute? That’s all you need to learn a surprising amount about your health with these at-home self exams.
from Instant Health Answers
Look at Your Hairbrush
Why do it: Check for thyroid disorders, deficiencies, and more.
Deficiencies of zinc, iron, or biotin can all cause hair loss. Another culprit: a thyroid disorder. If you recently had a baby or experienced another significant hormonal change, such as going off the pill, hair loss for up to three months afterward may be part of the fallout.
How to do it: If you notice more hairs in the bathroom sink or in your hairbrush than what seems typical for you, count them. Losing 100 hairs a day is normal. If you’re finding more than 200, or if the hair comes out in clumps that leave bare spots on your scalp, immediately make an appointment with your physician.
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Peer Into the Whites of Your Eyes
Why do it: Check for allergies, herpes, infection, and more.
If the whites of your eyes suddenly have a yellow cast, it could be that you’ve spent too much time in the sun without wearing protective sunglasses. Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation causes a thickening of the clear membrane covering the whites of your eyes.
More commonly, your eyes may look red. This is caused by blood vessels near the surface of the eye becoming enlarged and dilated. Red eyes could be a symptom of any several dozen issues. Many are relatively benign, such as not sleeping well the night before, or having an eyelash hair or small foreign object find its way into your eye. Red eyes could also be a sign of allergies, colds, flu, dry eyes, or a herpes outbreak. Or they could be a symptom of an infection such as pink eye, the familiar name for conjunctivitis, a highly contagious bacterial infection. In rare cases, it could indicate a more serious eye disease or injury.
How to do it: Look in the mirror and focus on the whites of your eyes. For the first few days try to get a sense of any minor day-to-day variations; then keep a look out for more significant changes. Generally if you have clear white eyes, it’s a good indication that you are resting well and are keeping everyday hassles like colds and allergies at bay.
Blow Your Nose
Why do it: Check for allergies, defects, and more.
The normal, healthy way to breathe is through your nose, which means its normal, healthy state is clear of obstructions. Even minor congestion is indicative of a problem, be it allergies, a cold, sinusitis, or perhaps a basic structural defect. Many of us live with clogged noses, but we shouldn’t. Even if you’re still able to breathe comfortably, when your nose is 30 percent clogged, that means you’re taking in 30 percent less oxygen with each breath, and you have to breathe faster to keep up with your body’s oxygen needs. This is less healthy than taking long, deep, clear breaths.
How to do it: Hold a tissue to your nose and blow. If nothing comes out, fantastic. If clear liquid comes out, it could mean allergies, an emerging cold—or a too-cold home. Keep an eye out for other symptoms. Yellow or green fluid indicates an infection. And if solid stuff comes out, relax. Your nose is in large part a filtering system; it’s perfectly normal for inhaled matter to coagulate inside, forming you-know-whatties.
Examine Your Fingernails
Why do it: Check for skin cancer, kidney disease, fungus, and more.
The natural state of your nails should be strong, clean, and clear. Any significant variation from that is symptomatic of something deeper going on. What exactly? It’s hard to say; one health website we consulted listed more than 300 health problems for which nail problems are a symptom. Most prominent: deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, or protein; anemia; thyroid problems; hormonal imbalances; and psoriasis. But then again, weak nails could be the result of washing too many dishes.
How to do it: Look at each nail and take notice of any discoloration. A smattering of white spots might necessitate a meeting with your manicurist, not necessarily the doctor (it’s probably trauma, from slamming a finger in a drawer or door). But if you notice a linear streak that runs from the nail into the cuticle, it could be melanoma (skin cancer) and you should have it examined. If a brownish discoloration is under the nail bed, it’s probably caused by a fungus, which can be treated with prescription medication. Another anomaly: Nails that are dusky white starting about halfway down the nail bed and darker near the tip, which can be a sign of kidney disease.
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Focus on Your Floss
Why do it: Check for heart disease, infection, and more.
If you’re following your dentist’s orders, you floss every day to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. But if you’ve noticed that flossing is causing your gums to bleed, it’s not a sign that you should stop. It’s the opposite: Bleeding gums can be a sign that you have a bacterial infection that flossing will help get rid of. Research confirms that inflamed, infected gums are linked to heart disease, because chronic inflammation triggers the creation of immune-system chemicals in your bloodstream that contribute to the buildup of fatty deposits in your arteries.
How to do it: Aggressive flossing can cause bleeding, so make sure you are flossing properly. Wind an 18-inch piece of floss around the middle fingers of each hand. Pinch the floss between thumbs and index fingers, leaving 1 or 2 inches in between. Use your thumbs to gently guide the floss between your teeth, then move up and down using a zigzag motion. Don’t snap the floss between your teeth.
Peek at Your Pee
Why do it: Check for infection, liver disease, and more.
Normal urine is clear or a light shade of yellow. A few foods (as well as vitamin B supplements) can change it to a different color, but most of the time your urine shouldn’t vary much. What you’re really looking for is a sudden darkening. Dark yellow urine, or urine that looks blood-tinged, can signal dehydration or a urinary tract infection (UTI). It can also be a sign of liver disease. Bloody urine can also mean anything from kidney stones to bladder cancer. So if your urine is dark, don’t chug water or cranberry juice and ignore it; have your doctor check it right away.
How to do it: Take note of the hue of your urine. If it’s pale yellow most days and then suddenly green or pink or brown for several days in a row, even though you know you’re drinking plenty of fluids, let your physician know.
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Step on the Scale
Why do it: Check for diabetes, heart disease, and more.
We know. It’s in the “eat an apple/get some exercise” category of obvious health advice. But excess weight is linked to so many health conditions—diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, even depression, to name just a few—that it truly warrants ongoing monitoring. Plus daily checks have a good influence on you. A study from Brown University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that 61 percent of people who weighed themselves daily maintained their weight within five pounds over time (compared with 32 percent who weighed in less often). Keeping daily tabs helped them catch weight gain early so that they could take steps to stop it.
How to do it: The best time is in the morning, ideally before breakfast, wearing no clothing. Whatever time you choose, be consistent. Clothing can weigh a few pounds, as can a few glasses of water; in fact, your weight fluctuates more than you think over the course of 24 hours. Always use the same scale. Since you are watching for fluctuations in weight—and since store-bought models are often slightly off from one to the next—it’s best measured using the same scale every day.
Examine Your Stamina
Why do it: Check for chronic disease, heart problems, and more.
For a long time, health experts considered better eating habits as the number one lifestyle change you could make for good health. But today fitness is getting almost equal billing. The benefits of exercising are so extensive they would surprise many doctors. But much more frightening is new research that shows how much the lack of activity hurts your body. Some experts say that sedentary living has overtaken smoking as the top cause of chronic disease in America today.
How to do it: There are many ways to test fitness, and no one test is comprehensive. But we love this one from grade school: Do 25 jumping jacks at the same time every day. Do them with vigor: arms way above your head, legs far out to the side, lots of bounce in your feet. If doing that exhausts you, you certainly need more exercise. Ultimately, your goal is to be able to it with only a small increase in breathing and heart rate. Do it each day as a way to see if your fitness levels are deteriorating, improving, or holding steady.
© George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock
Measure Your Waist
Why do it: Check for heart disease, high blood pressure, and more.
Yes, we already recommended you check your weight each day on the scale. But certain fat is more dangerous than others, and the most dangerous type is fat that surrounds the organs in your abdomen. People who carry extra weight around their belly—as opposed to on their butt, thighs, or elsewhere—are at increased risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and even some types of cancer.
How to do it: Using a tape measure, measure the circumference of your waist and your hips. Now divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement. For example, if your waist measures 31 inches and your hips are 41, then that number is 0.75. If the result is 0.8 or less, you are at low risk. If the number is 0.81 to 0.85, you are at moderate risk of fat-related health issues, and if your result is greater than 0.85, you are in the high-risk category.
Fun fact: Research shows that a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 is optimal for being physically attractive to the opposite sex!
© Marili Forastieri/Lifesize/Thinkstock
Make Sure You're Moisturized
Why do it: Check for infections, nutritional deficiencies, and more.
Dry skin can make you feel tight and itchy all over, especially after showering. It’s not a particularly nice look and doesn’t feel very good. But dry skin could also be reflective of nutritional deficiencies or a more serious skin condition. And cracked, dry skin left unattended can open you up (literally) to infections and other health issues.
How to do it: Gently run a fingernail along your forearm. If your skin flakes or peels under your nail, or maintains a mark where you scratched, moisturize. Dry skin can also look red, or even crack and bleed.
Scan Your Skin
Why do it: Check for skin cancer, and more.
Skin cancer is the second-most common cancer for women between the ages of 20 and 29, and for women under 40, skin cancer has tripled in the last 30 years. Once a year, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends making a head-to-toe skin check as part of your annual physical check-up. The median age for diagnosis of skin cancer is 59, but the sooner it is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat.
How to do it: Keep an ongoing record of changes to your skin. Inspect yourself, taking note of freckles, moles, and any suspicious sores that haven’t healed. Write your findings down on a pad dedicated to your monthly checks or use an illustration of the human body (or a printout of a photo of yourself in a swimsuit) to mark where you’ve found things. When you do your next check (every month is ideal), update and compare your charts.
A normal mole is usually brown, tan, or black. It can be flat or raised; they tend to be symmetrical with even borders. Remember the ABCDE warning signs for skin cancer: A mole/spot that is Asymmetrical, has an irregular Border, is unevenly Colored (or has patches of red, white, or blue), has a Diameter wider than ¼-inch, or seems to be Evolving should be checked out by a doctor. If a mole or spot bleeds or itches, get it examined as soon as possible.