Got Skin Problems? How You Can Tell When a Specialist Is Best

Know whether you need a dermatologist or primary care doc

Got Skin Problems? How You Can Tell When a Specialist Is Best

Is it a spider bite? Poison ivy? Or are you developing that skin condition your aunt has? Only a doctor can tell you. But, if you can’t get in to see a dermatologist quickly, will your primary care physician do?

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Dermatologist Anthony Fernandez, MD, PhD, says your primary care doctor can likely handle most simple things. However, if you suspect a more serious problem, find a good dermatologist.

When to visit a primary care doctor

“You should definitely see your primary care provider first for simple, common skin problems. That’s the best place to start,” he says. “Anything with a systemic component should be seen by a dermatologist to get an answer quickly.”

Primary care doctors can treat mild acne, rosacea, warts, minor rashes, bug bites, simple cysts, athlete’s foot, dandruff and mild, benign lesions.

If their treatments don’t clear up the problem, though, it makes sense to consult a specialist.

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When to visit a dermatologist

If a rash or other skin problem covers more than 10 percent of your body, consult a dermatologist immediately, especially if you have fever, joint aches, muscle pain, difficulty swallowing or an inability to sleep, Dr. Fernandez says.

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Also, visit a dermatologist for any ulcers that won’t heal after a week or two. These open sores can lead to serious infections.

Don’t take the mild appearance of a new skin condition lightly, Dr. Fernandez says. A skin problem is sometimes the first sign of a significant, systemic autoimmune disease, such as lupus.

Diagnosing skin inflammation can also reveal inflammation in your organs, including the lungs, kidneys or liver.

Dermatologists can offer:

  • Faster diagnosis: If you suspect a serious problem, but start with your primary care doctor, you may wait longer for a diagnosis. In serious cases, this increases the risk of more severe organ damage, potentially leading to acute respiratory distress syndrome or significant damage to your kidneys or liver, Dr. Fernandez says.“Even if a skin-related symptom is mild, you can have a pattern of rash that a dermatologist can recognize immediately that is worrisome,” he says.
  • Scar prevention: Dermatologists will treat lupus, scalp conditions associated with hair loss and severe acne aggressively enough so that they don’t lead to scarring.

“As advanced as cosmetic procedures are, there’s no way to reverse scarring,” Dr. Fernandez says. “So, the longer the problem goes on, the more extensive permanent damage can become.”

Ultimately, he says, seek medical advice when you first notice a problem. When the skin condition is one symptom of a larger, more serious problem, doing so will  limit possible permanent skin or organ damage.

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What to do if you have an urgent issue

If you have an urgent issue, getting a dermatology appointment can sometimes be tough. Currently, there aren’t enough specialists to meet patient needs, and many focus on surgical or cosmetic rather than medical dermatology.

If you do have an urgent need for a dermatologist, Dr. Fernandez suggests this approach:

  • Call your dermatologist and discuss your symptoms in detail.
  • If you can’t get in to see him or her right away, call around and find an office that can see you sooner.
  • Keep in touch with your first choice to watch for cancellations.
  • See your primary care provider and ask him or her to reach out to your dermatologist.

Some offices, particularly those in academic medical centers, offer same-day appointments for patients with urgent problems, he says. Otherwise, for serious problems, you can expect to get in within two weeks. As a last resort, you can seek assistance in the emergency department.

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