What Healthy Really Looks Like

Every part of your body—from your eyes and nails to your pee—has its own natural or normal color based on your genetics and other factors. But is there a.. standard? Ahead, what’s normal and what’s not.

White tongue? Blue fingers? Green pee? Those seemingly random color changes are actually a mirror reflecting what’s going on inside of you, and they can warn you that a problem’s brewing. “Even with all of the high-tech equipment we have today, color is still a very valuable diagnostic tool,” says Marc I. Leavey, MD, a primary care physician with Mercy Health Services in Baltimore. “Looking at changes in skin and body fluids helps doctors identify many underlying conditions, just like healers did thousands of years ago.” Read on for what your body’s palette is telling you.

Eyes

What’s normal color: Whites should be bright white if you’re fair or off-white to beige if you have dark skin.

What’s not: 

Yellow: That’s jaundice, a sign your blood’s overly saturated with bilirubin. This substance is created as old red blood cells are broken down by the liver, which then helps the bilirubin exit your body via your stool. Bilirubin might stick around if your liver’s having trouble doing its job (because of diseases like hepatitis) or if a blockage is preventing bile (which contains bilirubin) from traveling from the liver to the intestines (say, due to gallstones). See your doctor immediately to figure out what’s wrong.

Bright Red in the white part of one eye: If it doesn’t hurt and your vision’s fine, that’s a burst blood vessel; it should go away in a day or two. If it doesn’t, see an ophthalmologist—you may have an infection or, more rarely a condition such as glaucoma, a disease that affects the optic nerve and impairs your sight.

Tongue

What’s normal color: Rosy pink, though some people have harmless, tattoo-like red-and-white geometric patterns, which docs call “geographic tongue.”

What’s not:

White patches inside your tongue and cheeks: You probably have an oral yeast infection called thrush, which is easily remedied with a prescription medication. But since a white patch could be as harmless as a canker sore or as threatening as a cancerous lesion, you should have a doctor take a look if it’s been in your mouth for longer than two weeks.

Pale Pink to White Lips: You could be anemic, meaning that you’re low on iron, vitamin B12, or folate. There are many causes of anemia, though—including heavy periods, fibroids, and even taking too much aspirin or ibuprofen—so check in with your doctor to ID any underlying problems before trying to treat them yourself with supplements.

Black: Bismuth—the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol—can blacken the tongue. Haven’t taken any? Bacteria that pools on the tongue due to poor dental hygiene, diabetes, or antibiotic use can darken it, too.

Bright Red: You might just be low on folate and B12, so make sure you’re taking a daily multivitamin. But if your tongue is also sore and swollen, and you’re having trouble eating or talking, you may have an inflammatory condition called glossitis, which can be caused by anything from infection or an allergic reaction to dehydration. See your doctor to figure out the underlying cause.

Skin

What’s normal color: Your usual skin tone, of course.

What’s not:

Yellow-orange: If your eyes are yellow, too, you’re probably jaundiced. Otherwise, you may have a condition called carotenemia, a result of overeating food rich in the pigment beta-carotene, like sweet potatoes and carrots. (That, or you did a poor job with the self-tanner.)

Black smudges around your neck, knees, armpits, fingers, or toes: If your skin here also feels rough, get your blood sugar checked, advises David Bank, MD, director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, New York. These discolorations (called acanthosis nigricans) can be a harmless side effect of oral contraceptives or hormone replacements, but they can also be a sign of prediabetes.

Brown splotches: This is probably melasma, which develops when high levels of estrogen turbocharge color-making cells called melanocytes. “The melanocytes become more responsive to light, so these areas of the skin tan faster and more deeply than the skin around them,” Dr. Bank explains. “This often happens during pregnancy, but estrogen-based contraceptives can cause it, too. Darker skin is more susceptible because its color-producing skin cells are more responsive to light than the ones in fairer skin. Your derm may suggest switching to a contraceptive that doesn’t contain estrogen and using sunscreen with a mineral block, like zinc oxide or titanium oxide—unlike many chemical sunscreens, these block the entire light spectrum to prevent further darkening. Lightening creams, chemical peels, microdermabrasion, or laser treatments can help lighten any dark patches you’ve already got.

White patches: If you had a wound or cut in those spots, that could simply be new skin forming. Otherwise, see your derm in case it’s vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder, or tinea versicolor, overgrowth of a yeast that lives in the sebaceous glands.

Pinkish red across the cheeks, nose, and chin: You may have rosacea, a skin condition that dilates blood vessels and especially affects fair-skinned folks. Laser treatments can help, as can avoiding possible triggers like sun exposure.

Fingers & nails

What’s normal color: Fingers should be the same color as the rest of the skin on your body; nails are clear.

What’s not:

Brown/Black streaks on your nail: If it’s a splotch, you probably bruised your finger. But any mark that starts at the cuticle and runs the length of the nail should be seen by a derm: It could mean melanoma. It’s rare for fair-skinned people to get this form of cancer under their nails, but up to 40 percent of melanomas in darker-skinned people can be found there.

Bluish-White Fingers that later turn red: You may have Raynaud’s disease, meaning the blood vessels in your fingers spasm, cutting off circulation in your digits—usually when you get cold or stressed. Once the vessels relax, fingers turn pink to red as the blood rushes back in. Raynaud’s is often connected with injury or autoimmune conditions such as scleroderma and lupus, so see your doc if this is a problem for you.

Pee

What’s normal color: Anywhere from clear to deep yellow.

What’s not:

Yellow-orange: You’re probably taking megadoses of riboflavin (vitamin B2).

Dark yellow: You’re pretty dehydrated. Drink some water!

Pinkish-red: That’s blood tinting your urine, Dr. Leavey says. If you’re peeing constantly, it might be a bladder infection; pain along your side or lower back likely means a kidney stone. In rare cases, blood can signal a bladder tumor. See your doctor and find out.

Blue/Green: No worries: You likely ate something—icing, perhaps?—dyed one of those shades, or took antibiotics that contain the coloring methylene blue. You’re fine.

Poop

What’s normal color: Any shade from tan to dark brown.

What’s not:

Muddy Green: You have a diet that’s rich in green vegetables (which is great!)—or your poop is speeding through your intestines. Normally, green bile mixes with bacteria and enzymes in the intestines to make poop brown, explains David Greenwald, MD, director of the gastroenterology fellowship program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “But if the transit speed is too fast, there isn’t enough time for bile to combine with the bacteria, and the stool will come out in shades of dark green,” Dr. Greenwald says. This can happen due to inflammatory bowl disease or Crohn’s disease. Have your doc check it out.

Red: Reddish poop is likely just a sign that you ate a red food like beets, or even red Jell-O. But long, narrow, bright streaks of blood along the sides of a stool are usually sign of a hemorrhoid. Bright red blood can also mean there’s a tear in your rectum or a polyp or tumor in your colon, so be safe and consult your doctor.

Black: Popping iron supplements, diarrhea meds containing bismuth, or even licorice can make your poop turn black. If your stool’s sticky or tarry, see your doctor, though—there’s blood somewhere in your GI tract, possibly from a bleeding ulcer, Dr. Greenwald says.

Yellow: If it’s also greasy and stinky, you’re not digesting fat properly. This usually happens with serious pancreatic diseases, including pancreatic cancer, so make a beeline for your doctor’s office.

Red alert

Your period should never be bright red—that means you’re bleeding so quickly, the blood doesn’t have time to clot in the uterus and turn its normal deep, dark hue. It could signify fibroids or polyps, so call your gyno.

By guest writer Norine Dworkin-McDaniel

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