Cancer Care

Skin Matters: What Is Dermatology?

As a medical field, dermatology is somewhat misunderstood. The doctor who takes care of your skin, hair, and nails might seem elementary compared to medical professionals such as cardiologists or pulmonologists, but dermatology is an essential branch of medicine. Have you ever wondered why people go to a dermatologist—or if you should? Here, we'll explain the ins and outs of this vital part of health care.

What Is Dermatology?

Dermatology focuses on the skin, which is the body's largest organ and a key element of the immune system (it helps keep disease-causing pathogens from entering the body). A dermatologist is a physician who specializes in this all-important organ, and dermatology is the treatment of conditions that affect the skin, nails, hair, and mucus membranes (the lining of your eyes, nose, and mouth). Dermatologists treat people off all ages and a variety of conditions that range from clearing up cosmetic issues to addressing life-threatening cancers.

Why Go to a Dermatologist?

Common reasons to seek out a dermatologist include issues with acne, rashes, psoriasis, or other conditions. Many people first go to a dermatologist for a screening to see if any of their moles are cancerous or precancerous and in need of treatment. In addition, the symptoms and warning signs for many conditions show up initially in the skin. For instance, a skin condition called acanthosis nigricans is often a warning sign for prediabetes, and early treatment of prediabetes helps prevent it from developing into full-blown diabetes.

Who Should See a Dermatologist?

It's a common misperception that only people with fair skin are at risk for skin cancer. The truth is, anyone can get skin cancer, and skin cancers found in people with darker skin are often diagnosed at later stages because those lesions are more easily overlooked. Anyone with a compromised immune system or who has received an organ transplant is also at greater risk for skin cancers and should have regular screenings with a dermatologist.

Preparing for Your First Appointment

Get in the habit of doing regular self-checks of your skin. Get to know your moles, where they are, and what they look like, and keep notes so you can inform your doctor of any changes. Moles that get larger or change color, texture, or shape will be of particular interest to your dermatologist, as well as any spots that are itching, oozing, or bleeding. You should also remove all nail polish from your fingers and toes before your appointment. The dermatologist will need to be able to see the skin under your nails, as skin cancer may develop there.

What to Expect During Your First Visit

Wear loose, comfortable clothes, as you will be asked to remove them and change into a gown. The dermatologist will then examine your skin. Be sure to point out any changes and parts of the skin that are irritated. Your physician will help you determine your risk level for skin cancers, how frequently you should perform self-exams, and how frequently you should return to the dermatologist for routine screenings. He or she will also educate you on how to perform a self-exam and what to look for.

So much of dermatology is about preventive care. With the help of regular self-exams and routine screenings with your dermatologist, you'll better keep your body healthy by identifying and treating problem spots early, and preventing them from developing into major health issues.

Posted in Cancer Care

Judy Schwartz Haley is a freelance writer and blogger. She grew up in Alaska and now makes her home in Seattle with her husband and young daughter. Judy battled breast cancer when her daughter was an infant, and now she devotes much of her free time to volunteering as a state leader with the Young Survival Coalition, which supports young women with breast cancer.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.