Doctors have been left baffled by a strange condition which appears to have caused a 23-year-old woman to age 50 years in a matter of days.
Nguyen Thi Phuong, from Vietnam, now looks like a septugenarian after the affliction took hold in 2008 leaving her with a puffy face and sagging skin.
However her husband, carpenter Nguyen Thanh Tuyen says his love has not faded for his once beautiful wife, who is now 26.
She has always worn wear a mask in public to hide her appearance from prying eyes, but she has now sought help from doctors to see if they can reverse the ‘ageing’ effect.
Displaying photos of a beautiful 21-year-old woman on her wedding day in 2006, Mrs Nguyen said: ‘Five years ago, I was rather pretty and not so ugly like this, right?’
Mrs Nguyen believes her condition was caused by a life-long allergy to seafood.
She said she had suffered a particularly bad reaction in 2008.
‘I was really itchy all over my body. I had to scratch even while sleeping.’
Phuong said she took some medicine bought at a local pharmacy instead of going to the hospital because her and her husband Tuyen, now 33, were too poor to afford it.
She said: ‘After one month of taking the drugs, I became less itchy but hives remained on my skin.
Then I switched to traditional medicine and all the hives disappeared, together with my itching. However, my skin began to sag and fold.’
Mrs Nguyen then took another kind of traditional medicine to treat her rapid-aging skin problem – but to no avail.
Doctors say it may have been the long-term use of traditional medicines that caused the condition as they are often spiked with corticoids. These steroids speed up the effects of the unregulated remedies but could also have triggered the rare skin disease mastocytosis, where the body produces too many mast cells.
The couple do not remember what the medicine was or which pharmacy they got it from.
Mrs Nguyen said: ‘We considered that it was our destiny and I quit treatment in 2009. Now I always wear a face mask whenever I go out.
‘The skin on my face, chest and belly have folds like an old woman who has given birth several times although I have never had a child.
‘But the rapid-aging syndrome hasn’t affected my menstrual cycle, hair, teeth, eyes and mind.’
In 2010, the couple migrated to the southern province of Binh Phuoc’s Bu Dop District where they rent a small wooden house.
Mr Nguyen continued to work as a carpenter while Phuong got a job at a cashew-nut processing factory. Both earn a total of less than £92 a month – which means they cannot afford an examination at a major hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.
Tuyen said his wife’s disease has not affected his love for her or their relationship.
He said: ‘I married Phuong when she was a beautiful woman. I have followed her through her disease and have never been shocked at all.
‘It’s not easy to talk about one’s own marital affairs. Just simply understand that I still love her very much.’
Mrs Nguyen said her husband’s love is the reason she is able to persevere in the face of adversity.
She said: ‘He still loves me like before despite the fact that I look old and ugly. With him, I feel more confident to live and work.’
On October 2, doctors from Nguyen Dinh Chieu Hospital in Ben Tre Province said they would examine Phuong for free and send her to the HCMC Dermatology Hospital if they failed to diagnose her condition.
There is already some disagreement among doctors over the cause of the rare condition.
Doctor Vo Thi Bach Suong of the HCMC University of Medicine and Pharmacy, said: ‘She might have taken corticoid for a long time. Many traditional pharmacists use corticoid in their medicine, leading to side effects like swelled face and abnormally-growing skin sections.’
Nguyen Hoai Nam, another lecturer at the university, agreed that Phuong may suffer from the wrongful use of corticoid.
He said: ‘A sudden stop in using corticoid could easily lead to Cushing’s Syndrome, which is clearly seen through affected skin.’
However, doctor Huynh Huy Hoang of the HCMC Dermatology Hospital has doubts over this diagnosis.
He said: ‘It’s really strange. This is the first time I’ve heard of such a case of rapid-aging process on an adult. It’s not lipodystropy syndrome.
‘However, aging is not a common sign of Cushing’s Syndrome either.’
Doctor Yen Lam Phuc of the Vietnam Military Medical Academy agreed with Hoang, saying the rapid aging could not be a side effect of a medical substance. He said: ‘It could be a totally new syndrome.’
Meanwhile Tuyen said that he and his wife do not dare to have a child, even though they have been married several years, because their lives are so difficult.
He said: ‘Our only wish is to have some philanthropists or doctors help my wife to make her normal face again.’
Doctor Hoang Van Minh from the Ho Chi Minh City Medicine and Pharmacy University Hospital claims Phuong, could regain some of her previous beauty with medical treatment.
Dr Hoang visited Phuong this week at her house in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre where he said it was likely she did have mastocytosis. He said Phuong’s face still swells and she is itchy with frequent diarrhoea, which are common signs of the disease.
There is currently no cure but there are many medicines to help treat its symptoms.
‘She needs to be treated for her allergies first,’ Dr Hoang said.
He added that his treatment plan could restore between 50-70 percent of her skin to normal and laser therapy could reduce the folds.
Dr Hoang said there should be more tests to verify his initial diagnosis and find any other diseases she might have.