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Skin Changes

Topic Overview

Most skin bumps, spots, growths, and moles are harmless. Colored skin spots, also called pigmented lesions (such as freckles, moles, or flesh-colored skin spots), or growths (such as warts or skin tags ) may be present at birth or develop as the skin ages.

Most skin spots on babies will go away without treatment within a few months. Birthmarks are colored marks on the skin that are present at birth or develop shortly after birth. They can be many different sizes, shapes, and colors, including brown, tan, black, blue, pink, white, red, or purple. Some birthmarks appear on the surface of the skin, some are raised above the surface of the skin, and some occur under the skin. Most birthmarks are harmless and do not need treatment. Many birthmarks change, grow, shrink, or disappear. There are many types of birthmarks, and some are more common than others. For more information, see the topic Birthmarks.

Cause of skin changes

Acne is a common skin change that occurs during the teen years and may last into adulthood. Acne may be mild, with just a few blackheads (comedones), or severe, with large and painful pimples deep under the skin ( cystic lesions ). It may be present on the chest and back as well as on the face and neck. Boys often have more severe outbreaks of acne than girls. Many girls have acne before their periods that occurs because of changes in hormone levels. For more information, see the topic Acne.

During pregnancy, dark patches may develop on a woman's face. This is known as the "mask of pregnancy," or chloasma, and it usually fades after delivery. The cause of chloasma is not fully understood, although experts think that increased levels of pregnancy hormones cause the pigment-producing cells in the skin (melanocytes) to produce more pigment. You can reduce skin pigment changes during pregnancy by using sunscreen and staying out of the sun.

Actinic keratosis and actinic lentigines are types of colored skin spots that are caused by too much sun exposure. Although these spots are not skin cancers, they may mean that you have an increased chance of getting skin cancer, such as squamous cell skin cancer or a type of melanoma.

You may have an allergic reaction to a medicine that causes a skin change, or you may develop a skin reaction when you are out in the sun while you are taking a medicine (this is called photosensitivity). Rashes, hives, and itching may develop, and in some cases may spread to areas of your skin that were not exposed to the sun (photoallergy). For more information, see the topic Allergic Reaction.

Skin changes can also be caused by:

Common skin changes

Some common skin growths include:

  • Moles. Most people have between 10 and 40 moles. You may continue to form new moles until you are in your 40s. Moles may change over time. They can gradually get bigger, develop a hair, become more raised, get lighter in color, fade away, or fall off.
  • Skin tags. These are harmless growths that appear in the skin folds on the neck, under the arms, under the breasts, or in the groin. They begin as small fleshy brown spots and may grow a small stalk. Skin tags never turn into skin cancer.
  • Seborrheic keratoses, which are harmless skin growths that are found most often on the chest or back; occasionally on the scalp, face, or neck; and less commonly below the waist. They begin as slightly raised tan spots that develop a crusty appearance like that of a wart. Seborrheic keratoses never turn into skin cancer. For more information, see the topic Seborrheic Keratosis.

Treatment of a skin change depends on what is causing the skin change and what other symptoms you are having. Moles, skin tags, and other growths can be removed if they become irritated, bleed, or cause embarrassment.

Skin cancer

While most skin changes are normal and occur with aging, some may be caused by cancer. Skin cancer may start as a growth or mole, a change in a growth or mole, a sore that does not heal, or irritation of the skin. It is the most common form of cancer in North America.

Skin cancer destroys skin cells and tissues and can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell cancer , squamous cell cancer , and melanoma . See a picture of the ABCDEs of melanoma .

Early detection and treatment of skin cancer can help prevent problems. Treatment depends on the type and location of the growth and how advanced it is when it is diagnosed. Surgery to remove the growth will help determine what treatment will be needed. For more information, see the topics Skin Cancer, Melanoma and Skin Cancer, Nonmelanoma.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

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Home Treatment

Most bumps, spots, growths, or moles do not need any type of home treatment. But the following measures may be helpful:

  • Keep the area clean and dry. Wash with a mild soap and warm (not hot) water. Do not scrub.
  • Avoid irritating the area.
    • Do not squeeze, scratch, or pick at the area.
    • Leave the area exposed to the air whenever possible.
    • Adjust your clothing to avoid rubbing the bump or spot, or cover it with a bandage.
  • Conceal a mole or birthmark if you are embarrassed by how it looks. Many cosmetics are designed for this purpose.
  • Shower after swimming or using a hot tub to rinse off chlorine or salt water. Use a moisturizer after showering.
  • Perform a skin self-exam to learn about your skin. This will help you spot new skin growths.
  • Eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids each day. For more information, see the topic Healthy Eating.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Signs of a skin infection develop.
  • A mole or colored skin spot:
    • Bleeds or forms an ulcer .
    • Changes in size, shape, or texture.
    • Becomes sensitive, itchy, or painful.
  • Symptoms do not improve, become more severe or frequent, or don't go away.

Prevention

Most noncancerous skin bumps, spots, and growths can't be prevented. But there are steps you can take to help prevent some skin problems:

Measures to decrease your risk of infection

  • Keep your skin clean.
    • Wash with lukewarm water and a mild soap or cleanser. Do not use soaps and skin cleansers that contain irritating substances.
    • Rinse your skin thoroughly after you wash it, and gently pat it dry.
    • Wash soon after participating in activities that cause you to sweat.
  • Do not use skin care products that contain oil, because they may clog your pores. Instead, use water-based skin care products. Read the labels on products, and look for the terms oil-free or hypoallergenic.
  • Do not squeeze, scratch, drain, or puncture a painful lump. Doing this can irritate or inflame the lump, push any existing infection deeper into the skin, or cause severe bleeding.
  • Prevent irritation by wearing soft, cotton clothing or moleskin under sports equipment (if possible). Parts of equipment (such as chin straps) can rub your skin and irritate it. Adjust your clothing so that belts and straps or elastic from bras or underwear do not rub against your skin.

Prevent skin cancer

Most skin cancer can be prevented by Click here to view an Actionset. protecting your skin from the sun. You may decrease your chances of developing skin cancer and help prevent wrinkles by avoiding sun exposure and using sunscreen protection. Be sure to prevent sun exposure in children and older adults too.

Do not use tanning booths to get a tan. Artificial tanning devices can cause skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer.

For more information on warts, see the topic Warts and Plantar Warts.

For more information on how to help prevent acne, see the topic Acne.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • How long have you had the skin spot?
  • Has your skin spot changed? If so, how?
  • Where did it first appear? Where is it now?
  • What other symptoms, such as itching or pain, do you have?
  • Are there any other family members who have the same skin changes or a history of skin changes?
  • Is there anything new or different that you have been exposed to, such as a medicine, personal care products, products at work, or things related to sports or hobbies?
  • What home treatment have you tried? How did it work?
  • Have you ever been treated for a skin condition like this in the past?
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicines do you take?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Other Places To Get Help

Online Resource

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency SunWise Program
Web Address: www.epa.gov/sunwise
 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the SunWise program to teach children and caregivers about the UV index and safe sun exposure.


Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised December 27, 2012

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