"Ghost bite' can be more than a bruising experience

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Unexplained bruises, known as "˜ghost bites' in Vietnam, could indicate serious health issues


Sometimes, purple bruising marks appear without any injury. Doctors say that such bruises, which normally do not hurt or itch, indicate an underlying medical problem or even a dangerous disease. PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

People can get a bruise a discoloration of the skin for several reasons. They can be beaten by someone, or fall or bump into something or hurt themselves while performing rigorous exercises, which can damage small blood vessels under the skin.

But sometimes, purple bruising marks appear without any injury.

In Vietnam, these are called "ghost bites," or "dog ghost bites."

Doctors say that such bruises, which normally do not hurt or itch, indicate an underlying medical problem or even a dangerous disease.

Dr. Hoang Cong Minh, director of the Ho Chi Minh City-based Nhan Sinh Hospital, said they have treated several cases of unexplained bruising and in almost all instances, patients did not think it could be a sign of dangerous diseases.

Women have more chances to have such skin problems than men, Minh said. 

He said his hospital recently admitted Dinh Thi Oanh, 29, of HCMC's District 12, who was hospitalized with high fever, coma, bleeding gums and nosebleed, as well as several bruises.

Oanh's family said the bruises had been appearing frequently for nearly a year, but they did not consider it cause for worry. They said many relatives had such bruises that disappeared on their own in about a week.

But Oanh's bruising continued and spread from her arms and legs to all across the body. She then had fever at night, bloody stool, bleeding gums and menorrhagia, an abnormally excessive blood loss at regular intervals or prolonged menstrual periods.

She treated the condition on her own with medicines, not going to see the doctor until one day she got fever over 40 degrees and she went into a coma. Her family rushed her to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with blood cancer.

In another case, a 35-year-old female patient also had several bruises and menorrhagia. Her health was declining severely, but her husband did not allow her to go to the doctor, as he suspected that her menorrhagia was the result of her having an extra-marital affair.  

Her condition worsened every day until she fainted at her workplace and was rushed to the hospital.

Doctors also concluded that she had blood cancer.

According to Minh, the "ghost" bruising occurs when blood vessels, especially small ones like the capillaries, are broken due to an outside impact. Blood escapes from the vessels and gathers beneath the surface of the skin, turning eventually into bruises. 

The bruises can be purple at first, then turn pale and disappear in one or two weeks. A lot of unexplained bruising can be benign, with people generally in good health without any other symptoms.

In these cases, the strength of the capillary walls declines due to allergies, endocrine problems, diet with insufficient fat and poor absorption, Minh said.

If the condition lasts over two weeks and new bruises appear, and is accompanied by symptoms such as fever, fatigue, bleeding gums or noses, blood in stool and menorrhagia, people should visit the doctor without any delay.

Doctors will perform some examinations to find out what is really behind those bruises.

He said the potential culprit can be diabetes, renal failure or blood cancer, which are all life-threatening conditions without correct and prompt treatment.

Thrombocytopenia, a condition in which people have an abnormally low number of platelets and the blood does not clot properly due to severe blood loss or other conditions like myelo-suppression and blood cancer; and hemophilia due to a lack of clotting factors, the proteins in blood which control blood bleeding, can be among the causes.

A decline of clotting factors caused by liver failure, cirrhosis, vitamin K deficiency, lack of fat and certain nutrients in diet can also be a reason for unexplained bruising, Minh said.

Many doctors have said medications such as aspirin, anticoagulants, corticosteroids, birth control pills and diet supplements like fish oil, ginkgo, ginger and garlic may thin the blood and lead to easy bruising.

The older people are, the more they are susceptible to bruises as their skin becomes thinner, and the blood vessels under the skin are weaker and more prone to being torn in even a minor injury.

Minh of the Nhan Sinh Hospital said vitamin C deficiency can be among the most common reasons that make young people's blood vessels fragile. Those who usually get unexplained bruising, therefore, need to use vitamin C-rich food such as lemons, cherries, and grapefruits.

A thin body, especially when people age, with a loss of a layer of fat between the skin and the capillaries; and deficiencies of Vitamin B12 and folic acid can be other causes of bruising.

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