Few of us would hesitate to even imagine a life without the ability to hear a favorite song or a loved one’s voice, to smell a rose or to savor a favorite food or drink. Our eyes, nose and mouth help us to sustain life, keep us safe from harm and also provide us an amazing array of pleasurable experiences. But while we may appreciate our sensory organs, we may not realize just how much they really do for us. They can tell us many things about our general health – if only we’re willing to listen.
The eye has been called the most complex organ in your body, with a multitude of parts that work much like a digital camera. The cornea (the front surface of the eye) focuses on incoming light, just as a camera lens, and the iris adjusts the size of the pupil to control the amount of light, just as the diaphragm of a camera does. And eyes have lenses, too, to help focus on near and approaching objects. The inner lining of the back of the eye, or the retina, converts the optical images it receives to the brain, just like an image sensor in a camera.
But eyes can do so much more than provide visual images, according to Dr. Mark Fleckner, an ophthalmologist practicing in New York. “During an eye exam, doctors find clues to what’s going on in our eyes – and in the rest of the body,” he explained.
It’s not uncommon, said Dr. Fleckner, for people to learn that they have another health problem, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or a thyroid condition, during an eye exam. “The eye is the only place in the body where doctors can noninvasively see blood vessels,” he added. “And since many illnesses like diabetes and hypertension affect the blood vessels, physicians can pick up a disease before patients are aware of it.”
Other systemic diseases that can be related to eye symptoms, said Dr. Fleckner, are hepatitis, a liver disease that can result in a yellowing of the white part of the eye, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis that can cause dry eyes and brain tumors or neurological problems that are manifested by double vision. Take-Away Be alert for eye symptoms that may indicate other problems with your health, said Dr. Fleckner. But because some diseases – including eye diseases such as glaucoma – have no obvious symptoms, it’s crucial to have regular eye checkups, even if you’re not experiencing any problems. “It’s important for everyone to have a baseline eye exam starting at age 40,” he added.
The nose is much more than a facial decoration. A lining of sticky mucus within the nasal cavity traps dust particles, pollutants and bacteria before they can get into the lungs. Tiny hairs called cilia sweep the excess mucus to the back of the throat, where it is swallowed away. And a vast network of blood vessels within the nose warms the atmospheric air to body temperature as well as humidifies the air to keep your airways from drying out.
In addition to filtering, warming and moisturizing the air, your nose allows you to smell the roses. But symptoms involving this sensory organ can also be an indication of underlying disease, said Marc I. Leavey, an internist practicing in Maryland. Three of the symptoms that may be a clue to systemic illness, he elaborated, are severe or frequent nosebleeds, a runny nose and changes in your sense of smell.
Everyone has had a nosebleed from time to time, explained Dr. Leavey. And the vast majority of nosebleeds are related to innocent causes, such as minor irritations or trauma to the nose, or drying out of the nasal mucosa. But sometimes a severe nosebleed or chronic nosebleeds may indicate a more serious problem, such as a bleeding issue, nasal or sinus cancer, leukemia or kidney failure. And while very rare, seriously elevated blood pressure can result in nosebleeds.
“The mucus in the nose, that is, the stuff that runs out, can increase with a cold, for sure. But there are many conditions, some common and some not so, that can result in a similar drip,” said Dr. Leavey. One of them is acid reflux, or “GERD.” “While unusual, acid reflux can reach the back of the throat, and while lying down, trigger increased nasal drainage as well,” explained Dr. Leavey.
Changes in sense of smell may occur in a small percentage of people without any underlying disease, especially among older persons. But olfactory changes, said Dr. Leavey, can also be an early and predictive sign of some systemic diseases. “Nasal polyps can disturb the normal physiology of the nasopharynx and impact on the ability to smell,” he said. “Head trauma or inflammation of the cranial nerves, such as with Bell’s Palsy, can also impact smell. And endocrine diseases, from diabetes to hypothyroidism and others, can change the sense of smell.” Take-Away Dr. Leavey recommended that any nasal symptoms that are severe or persist should be checked out by your doctor. While most symptoms involving the nose are innocent – and easily treated – others may indicate more sinister disease.
The mouth – the first part of the digestive system – serves as a receptacle for food and mechanical digestion through chewing and swallowing. It also aids in speech and in helping the respiratory system in the passage of air. But when something goes wrong with the mouth, it can indicate problems with your health. “The mouth is really like a mirror which reflects the health of the rest of the body,” said Leena Palomo, DDS, MSD, Associate Professor of Periodontics at Case Western Reserve University.
There are many conditions of the mouth that may indicate a systemic problem. Pale gums, for example, may be a symptom of anemia. A burning mouth or gums that bleed easily may indicate a nutritional deficiency or a blood disease. Oral ulcerations or other lesions in the mouth may be one of the first signs of diseases like lupus, an autoimmune disease, or Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease.
Red and puffy gums point to periodontal disease, said Dr. Palomo. This is a condition where “bacterial biofilm” (plaque and tartar) build up in the mouth, causing inflammation, and, if left untreated, loss of teeth. But chronic inflammation related to gum disease is not confined to just the oral cavity, she added. Your body responds to such inflammation by making inflammatory proteins called cytokines, which circulate throughout the body via the blood stream. Your liver, in turn, responds to the cytokines by producing another protein called C-reactive protein (CRP). “People with high levels of C-reactive protein, regardless of the cause of inflammation,” said Dr. Palomo, “have been suggested to be at greater risk for atherosclerosis.”
Atherosclerosis, or a buildup of plaques within the walls of the arteries, can lead to inflammation and thickening of the artery walls, and eventually may cause a stroke or a heart attack. In addition to cardiovascular problems, gum disease is associated with pre-term, low birth weight babies. And it can worsen control of systemic disorders such as diabetes.
What is more, just as gum disease can worsen the effects of some systemic diseases, certain systemic diseases that interfere with the body’s inflammatory system – like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis – may put you at greater risk for gum disease. Take-Away Dr. Palomo’s suggestion: Brush your teeth and gums twice daily, floss every day, and visit your dentist regularly for cleaning and an exam that can detect gum disease as well as other diseases of the mouth that may indicate systemic problems. Professional cleanings should be based upon your specific needs, she added. This “may be twice a year for those individuals less susceptible to gum disease or up to four times a year for people more susceptible or who have a history of disease.”
By Linda Hepler, BSN, RN