Health

This Common Skin Condition Could Be a Warning Sign of Heart Disease

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A few years ago, I noticed a small, strange growth above my dad’s eye. It was orange in color, making me wonder if he had accidentally rubbed something on his skin. I asked him about it, and he told me he’d had it for a while. He said he had already asked his doctor about it, who told him it was benign and not to worry. I thought nothing of it until recently, when I happened upon an article about xanthelasma, a skin condition that may indicate high cholesterol and heart disease. It looked exactly like the growth above his eye.  

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The article made me stop in my tracks. Just a few months ago, my dad was diagnosed with severe heart disease and had open-heart surgery. With no symptoms beyond abnormally high blood pressure one day (which prompted him to visit a physician, who said surgery was his only option), none of us saw it coming. Fortunately, the surgery was successful, and he gets stronger and stronger every day! I just couldn’t help but wonder whether we should have paid more attention to that little growth. I decided to dive deeper into the topic, more curious than ever.  

What is xanthelasma? 

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, xanthelasma is a skin condition characterized by yellow or orange growths on or near the eyelids, which can be raised or flat. They develop when cholesterol deposits build up under the skin, though it is unclear why they develop around the eyes. While the deposits are benign, they may be a sign of hyperlipidemia (high levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, or other lipids in the bloodstream).  

Xanthelasma usually occurs in middle-aged and older adults, and is more common in women. However, doctors have also diagnosed it in people as young as 15. 

Why Xanthelasma May Be a Sign of Heart Disease 

The link between hyperlipidemia and heart disease is well established, as noted in research from Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice. When there is too much cholesterol in the blood, some of it can harden and collect as plaque inside your blood vessels. This increases blood pressure and causes your heart to work harder. For reference, 200 to 239 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) of cholesterol is considered borderline high, and 240 mg/dL and above is considered high. 

Thus, the presence of xanthelasma may indicate that you have hyperlipidemia and are at risk of developing heart disease. However, it’s important to note that those strange yellow spots around your eyes don’t necessarily mean you have abnormally high cholesterol levels. Research from the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery notes that about half of the people who have xanthelasma have hyperlipidemia. The other half have normal cholesterol levels. As a result, some members of the medical community believe that inflammation (instead of high cholesterol) causes certain cases of xanthelasma.

Xanthelasma may be a sign that something else is wrong. The American Academy of Ophthalmology notes that you are also more likely to have this skin condition if you are: 

  • Smoking. 
  • Overweight. 
  • Diabetic. 

How to Treat Xanthelasma Linked to High Cholesterol 

If you have high cholesterol and xanthelasma, you may benefit tremendously from changing your diet. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and carbohydrates high in fiber will introduce the right nutrients into your system and help lower your cholesterol levels. In particular, soluble fiber (fiber that draws water into the gut) works to clear excess cholesterol from the body, because it binds to it in the small intestine and draws it out of the bloodstream.  

However, hyperlipidemia isn’t just caused by a diet high in fat, sodium, and sugar. Many people who develop high cholesterol may have a genetic predisposition. For example, certain enzymes that help reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood stream may be defective. This problem can naturally causes a buildup of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the body.  

Whether you eat a diet high in fat or believe you have a genetic predisposition for hyperlipidemia – or both – it’s important to speak to your primary care provider. Your doctor may prescribe medication that lowers your cholesterol and blood pressure. Dietary changes and medications may reduce the appearance of xanthelasma. They may also reduce the chances of you developing additional growths.  

Can you remove xanthelasma?  

Xanthelasma may be benign, but you may really dislike its appearance. If you’re interested in removing those spots, you have several options, including: 

Keep in mind that removing your xanthelasma spots won’t stop them from coming back. Whether you think cosmetic treatment is worthwhile is entirely up to you.  

Regardless, you should visit a doctor if you believe you have xanthelasma. A primary care physician or a dermatologist can give you a diagnosis and run tests to be sure. In addition, your doctor should order a lipid screening (a blood test that detects the levels of fats and lipids in your blood) to check for high cholesterol and other conditions.  

While my family and I didn’t know about xanthelasma until after my dad was diagnosed with heart disease, we’re happy we know now. We’re even happier that we can spread the word!  

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