A lot can happen between annual visits to the doctor—especially since more than half of men skip out on their annual physical examinations, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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“You can feel great, but still have killer numbers,” says Bruce B. Campbell, MD, a men's health specialist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts. “Killer” is not a good thing in this example. That’s why it’s so important to perform regular self-exams.
And sorry, guys, a testicular cancer self-exam isn’t enough to keep your vitals in check.
From head to toe, small changes can be red flags of serious medical conditions—ones to take to your doctor ASAP.
Here are the most surprising (and easy, and quick) self-checks to make part of your morning routine.
1. Check Your Hair
Take a close look at your hair.
IF YOU SEE: Your hair falling out in spots.
IT COULD MEAN: While a receding hairline is just nature doing its thing (sorry!), your hair coming out in clumps could be stress wrecking its own havoc, Campbell says. Stress hormones can cause white blood cells to attack the hair follicles, putting your strands into no-grow mode.
What’s more, when your hair growth is shut off, it can easily come out in clumps when combing or showering. While annoying, this is really just a symptom of a larger problem, as chronic stress can increase your risk of everything from heart disease to memory impairment, Campbell says.
HOW TO FOLLOW UP: Understand that “stress” is not a thing all by itself. It’s a reaction – your reaction to outside life factors. If you react negatively, you feel “stress.” Talk to your doctor or psychiatrist about stress management techniques such as exercise and meditation. If you have an anxiety disorder, these professionals can spot it and prescribe medications to help take the edge off.
And while knocking your stress habit will help get your hair growing, you can speed things up by getting plenty of healthy-hair nutrients such as iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B12. Broccoli and salmon are both pretty good bets for a full head of hair.
2. Check Your Breasts (Yes, Guys, You Have 'Em!)
Take a look at your breasts, err pecs.
IF YOU SEE: One growing larger than the other or growing lumpy or unevenly.
IT COULD MEAN: We get it, you call them pecs. But they still contain breast tissue, and that means they can develop—you guessed it—breast cancer.
While only about 2,140 cases of male breast cancer are diagnosed annually, breast self-exams are a good idea since men don't routinely get mammograms. “Breast cancer in men is usually diagnosed at a later state, and that’s because we ignore it,” Campbell says.
About once a month, while you’re in the shower scrubbing up, look for any changes in the size of your breasts, feel for lumps (including around your pits), and flag any changes in the color or shape of your nipples.
HOW TO FOLLOW UP: See your physician for an exam. If anything seems suspicious, he or she may order a mammogram or ultrasound to get a look at what’s going on under the skin. And while breast cancer is on your mind, look at your family tree. About one out of five men who develop the cancer have a close family history, according to the American Cancer Society.
3. Check Your Stream
Pay a bit of attention the next time you're taking a pee.
IF YOU HAVE: Trouble urinating.
IT COULD MEAN: Stop blaming bladder shyness. Your bathroom troubles might be caused by an enlarged prostate gland, which could be a sign of cancer, Campbell says. How? Here’s a quick anatomy lesson: The prostate gland surrounds the upper part of the male urethra, so if it swells or develops a growth, it can easily cut off urine flow, making it more difficult to start, stop, or keep a steady stream going.
HOW TO FOLLOW UP: It’s time for a prostate exam. One man in six will get prostate cancer during his lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. And as one in 36 men will die of the disease, early diagnosis is critical.
But before you freak out, remember this: An enlarged prostate doesn’t mean you necessarily have cancer. While the cause of benign prostate enlargement isn’t known, many men over the age of 40 experience the condition, according to the National Institutes of Health.
A digital rectal exam or blood test can determine if you need to go ahead with a biopsy.
4. Check Your Mouth
Open up and look into a mirror.
IF YOU SEE: A new sore or bump that doesn’t go away.
IT COULD MEAN: Don’t chalk it up as just an obstinate canker sore. A sore or bump on your gums, tongue, throat, or lips that doesn’t go away could be cancerous.
About 40,250 people—most of whom will be men—will get oral cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Research shows that oral cancer is twice as common in men as in women, possibly because of cancer-causing HPV infections, which cannot be tested for in men.
HOW TO FOLLOW UP: Call up your doctor or dentist for an examination. If he or she sees or feels anything suspicious, further tests using a special dye, light, or brush to biopsy cells (don’t worry, it’s relatively painless) can help identify exactly what the abnormality is.
5. Check Your Waist
Take a measuring tape, and wrap it all the way around your waist at the belly button.
IF YOU SEE: A circumference of more than 37 inches.
IT COULD MEAN: You know what they say: Big waist, big pants. And possibly diabetes and cardiovascular disease. “Belly fat acts like a factory, where 24/7, it’s producing inflammatory juices that can increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease,” Campbell says.
More than one in three men have a form of heart disease and 11.8 percent of men ages 20 and older have diabetes—and excess weight is a main risk factor for both. To get the most accurate results, use a cloth measuring tape or string and wrap it around your waist just above your belly button. And do yourself a favor – don’t cheat.
HOW TO FOLLOW UP: Slim down! Reducing your waist size can significantly cut your chances of developing heart disease and diabetes, Campbell says.
Also, you should talk to your doctor about any other risk factors you may have, even if you seem to be symptom-free. Half of men who die suddenly from coronary heart disease have no symptoms, according to the American Heart Association.