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This Is What Diseased Organs Really Look Like

Your vital organs tend to look a whole lot different when they are healthy compared to when disease sets in—and you may not even realize what's happening beneath the surface.

black lungCourtesy Dr. Robert Cohen

Your lungs: black lungs

Healthy, pink lungs work with your respiratory system to move fresh air into your body and expel carbon dioxide. Diseased lungs are inflamed and may be covered with scar tissue. What’s more, the healthy pink hue is gone and diseased lungs appear dark and ominous—especially in black lung disease, a.k.a. coalworkers’ pneumoconiosis. “Black lung disease occurs in coal miners who are overexposed to very small particles of dust created during the coal mining process,” explains Robert Cohen, MD, a clinical professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and Co-Director of the Black Lung Center of Excellence. “These particles are small enough to get into the lungs and cause damage.” The damage is similar to what is seen in smoking-related lung disease, he says. “Smoking and coal mining give toxic substances access to your lungs and causes lung damage that builds up over time.” While rates of this irreversible lung disease were declining for a time, there has been a pronounced uptick in recent years. “Coal miners are working longer hours so there is more exposure with less time to clear their lungs, and technology that has made mining more efficient has inadvertently increased risk because it creates silica dust from rocks, and silica is more toxic than coal,” he says. “There is no way to reverse the damage that has occurred, but avoiding future exposure, quitting smoking, and taking steps to protect lung health can stave off further damage,” he says.

Pulmonary hypertension is an increased blood pressure within the arteries of the lungs. Cross section of the Normal, and narrowing of blood vessels. Humans heart with hypertrophy of Right ventricleDesignua/Shutterstock

Your heart: high blood pressure

Nearly half of Americans qualify as having high blood pressure. The concern is that uncontrolled high blood pressure causes the heart muscle to thicken, which makes it less efficient and causes a form of heart failure. “The heart has trouble relaxing because the muscle is so thick and this can cause shortness of breath and swelling in the legs,” says Deepak L. Bhatt MD, MPH, executive director of Interventional Cardiovascular Programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Don’t miss these obscure facts you never knew about your own body.

MRI of the blood vessels in the brain and cerebrovascular disease or or hemorrhagic stroke. brain stroke x-ray image.create jobs 51/Shutterstock

Your brain: stroke

Time is crucial if you or someone you love has had a stroke. “The longer one waits to get care, the more likely brain cells will die,” says Dr. Bhatt. “The more common type of stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked by plaque, a clot, or both, and brain tissue starts to die from lack of oxygen,” he says. “A healthy brain is a grayish color, but the dead area is usually whiter,” he says. “Certain strokes cause bleeding and in these cases, there would be blood where the damage is.” Many of the same things that lower risk for heart disease can also lower the risk for stroke. Learn which body changes can signal a much bigger health problem.

Dark-skinned young woman in beige long sleeved t-shirt frowning, having painful expressions, suffering from bad severe headache, keeping eyes closed, holding fingers on temples, trying to ease tensionWAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

Your brain: concussion

There’s been a major focus on diagnosing and preventing concussions in recent years, but what does a concussed brain really look like? “There is no obvious sign on an imaging test for a concussion, the testing in the hospital is usually to rule out a related brain bleed,” Dr. Bhatt says. “Any hit to the head should be taken seriously especially if there is a loss of consciousness, vomiting, or other symptoms,” he says. “Sometimes we will see swelling in the brain where the blow occurred.” Research has shown that multiple, repeated blows to the head can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative brain disease marked by memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression, and depression. This has been seen in the brains of deceased players of American football players, according to a study in JAMA.

colonCourtesy Saurabh Sethi

Your colon: polyps and colon cancer

Your colon, or large intestine, is a long hollow tube at the bottom of your digestive tract. “It’s where the body makes and stores stool,” says Saurabh Seth, MD, MPH, an internist in the San Francisco Bay area. Colon polyps are precursors to colon cancer that grow in the colon. “Risks for developing colon polyps include having a family history of them, a history of ovarian or uterine cancer, being 50 years of age or older, being overweight, smoking, drinking alcohol frequently, consuming a high-fat and low-fiber diet,” he says. Quitting smoking, minimizing alcohol consumption, and eating a high-fiber, low-fat diet can help reduce the likelihood of developing polyps. Catching polyps early and removing them can stave off colon cancer. New colon cancer screening guidelines from the American Cancer Society recommend that adults at average risk get screened starting at age 45 instead of 50 likely because colon cancer is on the rise in younger people.

Plaque in blood vessels 3d illustrationsciencepics/Shutterstock

Your heart: artery disease

Think of your heart as a house with walls, plumbing, and electricity, “You can have problems in all of these areas,” explains Nehal Mehta, MD, the chief of Inflammation and Cardiometabolic Diseases at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, MD. “The most common plumbing issue is the hardening of the heart arteries or atherosclerosis,” he says. “Think of your arteries like a garden hose clogged with mud. At some point, there will be a full occlusion of the hose, and the water will be blocked,” he says. “When blood flow in the arteries is blocked, blood can’t reach the heart muscle and when it doesn’t get enough blood, heart cells die. A fresh heart is pink like a rare steak, but when there is lack of blood flow, cells lose color and become gray and cottage-cheese looking, and eventually form a scar,” he says.

cirrotic liver.3Dstock/Shutterstock

Your liver: cirrhosis

Our livers are our bodies’ task rabbits. They are charged with many important duties including clearing old blood cells, helping process fat, changing food into energy, and cleansing the blood to get rid of alcohol and poisons. In the earliest stage of disease, a liver may become inflamed, tender, and/or enlarged, according to the American Liver Foundation. If left untreated, the inflamed liver will start to scar. Cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) occurs when the scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue, setting the stage for liver failure and liver cancer regardless of what caused the initial damage. Find out the silent signs your body is in trouble.

Allergic rash dermatitis eczema skin of patientTY Lim/Shutterstock

Your skin: inflammation

The skin is the largest organ in the body. Healthy skin is smooth and provides a barrier that traps moisture and blocks environmental offenders. Many diseases can damage the skin, causing inflammation, redness, pimples, pustules, sores, scrapes and more. “In chronic inflammation, such as in atopic dermatitis, the nerve endings in the skin also change,” explains Peter A. Lio, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “They start as relatively small fibers, but can grow and branch out until they look like massive trees in the skin.” The nerve endings are not only larger, but they also have a trigger for sending the signal to itch, he says. Next, don’t miss these 50 myths about the human body that could seriously damage your health.

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.

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