WARNING – the following post does discuss medical issues and anatomical names for body parts. I hope that won’t turn you away from reading the post, because this is so important. But I do want to warn those who may not be in the right space to process this.
Since my January post got some good attention, I’m feeling positive about continuing this informative series each month. I don’t expect to change the world once a month, but I want to reach at least one person.
February is National Self-Check Month, something important to people of all walks of life.
Self-examination is something that’s talked about during cancer awareness campaigns, but now self-checking your health has its own month. Luckily, self-checks don’t involve making appointments or anything really involved like blood donation. I’m going to share some information about how important it is to perform self-checks and do them properly. In this time of viruses, packed hospitals, and soaring healthcare costs, taking care of your health is paramount.
When someone brings up self-checking, most people think of performing breast exams to feel for lumps. But that isn’t the only way to self-check your health on a regular basis.
Here are some of the ways to check on your health outside of the doctor’s office-
Regular Temperature Checks
Yes, this is a self-check we should all be doing. We’ve been led to believe that everyone’s healthy body temperature is 98.6° (Fahrenheit), but everyone is different. Some people run hot. Some people run cool. Studies have been showing a (minimal) decline in average healthy body temperature in the last 150 years. A 2017 study even suggests that the healthy body temperature of an adult human might be as low as 97.8°! Knowing your own healthy temperature isn’t always just hoping to see 98.6° don the display screen.
It’s important to know your personal base temperature so that you can track when things are out of the normal. You should also check regularly – body temperature can be different based on time of day, where you might be in your menstrual cycle, or even what you’ve eaten. These fluctuations are help tell the difference between, for example, a low-grade fever and the temperature change during ovulation.
Another key aspect of regular temperature checks is to be consistent in the manner of taking the temperature. The discrepancies can be as much as a couple degrees, depending on where you take your temperature from and what type of thermometer you use. Rectal and tympanic (in-ear) thermometer readings tend to skew about 0.5-1° F higher than an oral temperature reading. Temporal (forehead) and axillary (underarm) readings, on the other hand, lean 0.5-1° F lower than the oral thermometer reading.
Digital oral/rectal thermometers process the reading the quickest and they tend to be the most accurate. Mercury thermometers risk the glass casing cutting someone or releasing the toxic liquid mercury.
Temporal thermometers are praised for their “point-and-shoot” ease. The truth is they need to be positioned correctly for the best reading and that external factors may impact the accuracy. Similarly, tympanic thermometers are widely adored for their ease of use, but ear anatomy and even earwax might provide inaccurate readings.
Regular Blood Pressure Checks
This check is something you might think is only for older people or unhealthy people, but blood pressure is an indicator of heart health and very important to keep tabs on. There are two number values that make up your blood pressure – your systolic blood pressure over your diastolic blood pressure. Your systolic blood pressure measures the force when your heart beats, while the diastolic measures the force in between beats.
The American Heart Association recommends monitoring your blood pressure regularly and keeping a log of the trends. Take the average of 3 measurements to get an accurate reading and to offset an incorrect reading due to user error. Having a long-term log of measurements to show your doctor your day-to-day trends helps give a bigger picture of your blood pressure, especially if you suffer from irregular blood pressure spikes such as “white coat syndrome” (only having high readings at the doctor’s office) or “masked hypertension” (only having high readings at home/outside the doctor’s office). It even helps to measure your blood pressure differences between your left and right arms, as there can be up to a 10mmHg difference in the readings from one arm to the other.
Blood pressure is usually divided into four levels:
- Normal blood pressure
(systolic <120mmHg and diastolic <80mmHg)
- Elevated blood pressure
(systolic 120-129mmHg and diastolic <80mmHg)
- Stage 1 high blood pressure (pre-hypertension)
(systolic 130-139mmHg and diastolic 80-89mmHg)
- Stage 2 high blood pressure (hypertension)
(systolic >140mmHg and diastolic >90mmHg)
There are also two somewhat more ambiguous levels:
- low blood pressure (hypotension)
(systolic <80mmHg and diastolic <60mmHg)
- hypertensive crisis
(systolic >180mmHg and diastolic >120mmHg)
Normal blood pressure is the level that most physicians recommend. At the point of elevated blood pressure, you should consider making lifestyle changes as this increases your risks of stroke or aneurysms. Pre-hypertension and hypertension drastically increase the chances of a serious stroke and organ failure. Low blood pressure isn’t inherently a bad thing, but consult your doctor if you’re concerned. Call 911 immediately in the case of hypertensive crisis.
Of course, everyone mentions diets and lifestyle changes when it comes to keeping their blood pressure in a healthy range. But sometimes high blood pressure isn’t a symptom of a poor diet, and it needs different help. Drug use, heart conditions, anaphylaxis, and hypoglycemia are some issues that can lead to low or high blood pressure. So, please, if you notice your blood pressure is outside of a normal range -either too high or too low – don’t just write it off.
Regular Skin Checks
Skin. It’s the largest organ of the human body. It’s pretty damn important to make sure it’s healthy because it’s the gateway to the rest of the body. The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) recommends that everyone have professional skin exam at least once a year. You may need exams more frequently if you have higher risk factors for disease and cancer.
Everyone should be performing regular skin checks to look for anything that’s new or changed between skins. It’s important to be thorough and examine your skin once a month to properly document changes in your skin. The AAD has a guide for making sure all your at-home skin checks are ticking off all the right boxes . They even offer a downloadable body mole map!
Approximately 20% of U.S. adults will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer in their lifetime. Both of my parents have been diagnosed with skin cancer in recent years. Thankfully, both instances were early enough that doctors were able to remove the cancerous section without major surgery. So remember to wear your sunscreen (minimum SPF30, approximately 1 tsp for your face and neck and approximately 1 oz for your full body – even when it’s overcast!), reapply it every 90-120 minutes, and wear UV-protective clothing.
Some of the big cancer red flags to look out for in your skin checks are:
- Changes in skin textures
- Blemishes that change in size or shape, especially if they’re over 0.25 inches in diameter and/or asymmetric in shape
- New or changing moles or wart-like blemishes
- Sores that don’t heal
- Changes in skin color
- Sores that bleed or ooze unexpectedly.
If you do notice any of these on your body during a skin check, please document them and schedule the earliest possible appointment with your physician or a dermatologist.
Of course, cancer isn’t the only thing to look out for during these skin checks. You should be monitoring the overall health of your skin, not just sighing in relief because you didn’t see a mole. Even conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, warts, and fungal infections should be on your skin check checklist. These issues could become worse and more life-threatening if not treated properly.
Start a new monthly routine! Set aside time to give your body a thorough examination and note any suspicious findings. If you can, ask a family member or loved one to help you take a good photo of anything you might find and make sure to keep an eye out for even the slightest of changes from month to month.
Checking for Lumps
You might be thinking this section is only for breast exams, but you should really take note of any new lumps on your body. Breast exams for everyone (regardless of gender), testicular exams, and lymph palpation exams are good practices to make habits.
There are websites with diagrams and videos that highlight exactly how to perform these self-checks properly. You don’t want to be missing areas and not notice a dangerous lump.
To check your breasts for lumps, the recommended method is to move in a circle or spiral around the breast. This allows you to be sure that you are getting a good sense of the entire breast. Performing the exam in front of a mirror gives you the chance to notice any changes in the surface texture or any unexpected discharge or bleeding sores.
I’ll be real here – I didn’t know how to perform a breast exam on myself until my mid-twenties. I know that a lot of people are in the same boat. Or they’re still aren’t sure of how to examine their own body or they don’t know what they’re looking for. I’ve attached a few links throughout this post to help!
No one really talks much about testicular exams but they’re just as important. Set aside some time each month to perform a testicular self-check. The skin is more relaxed and easier to manipulate after a warm shower. Look for any swelling or unexplained sores in the scrotal area. Gently massage the scrotum until you can feel a testicle, which you will then firmly roll between your fingers to manually inspect the full surface area. Repeat for the other testicle. Don’t be worry about slight size discrepancies between testicles. That’s completely normal!
The mirror is your best friend in these self-check routines. Take a good look at what your lymph nodes in your neck and axillary areas look like. Contact your healthcare provider if you notice that they start to look swollen or if you notice something is changed. You don’t want to brush off looking “a little puffy” because you think it’s nothing and have it end up something very serious.
Don’t be ashamed! Self-checking your health is not something that is advertised in daily life unless you’re looking for healthcare resources. Watch the videos online and learn how it’s done. Talk to your healthcare provider, or loved one if you’re lucky enough to have a healthcare professional in your life.
Take this new information and start a routine that will show you what is normal for your body!
Happy National Self-Check Month, everyone!