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Moles, known medically as melanocytic nevi are due to a proliferation of pigment cells known as melanocytes. They are common, being present in everyone and can appear anywhere on the skin. Moles are commonly tan or brown in color but can also be flesh-colored and assume various shapes and sizes. They may be flat or raised from the skin, and may contain hairs. Most moles appear during the first 20 years of life while some appear later. The number of moles a person has is determined by a combination of genetic factors and sun exposure.
Most moles are benign and harmless. Each mole has its own growth pattern and may change slowly over the years or not change at all. Moles also get darker and larger during pregnancy and teenage years. As the years pass some may lose their pigmentation and may even disappear in old age. Nevertheless, cancerous moles (malignant melanoma) may sometimes masquerade themselves as a changing mole; therefore it is best to have them evaluated by your dermatologist.
What are atypical moles?
Atypical moles, medically known as dysplastic or atypical nevi, are benign growths that may share some of the visible characteristics of melanoma, but are NOT melanomas or skin cancers. They may be larger than typical moles (greater than 6 millimeters) and may have irregular borders or irregular shapes and colors. They can occur anywhere on the body but are more common in over sun-exposed areas, the back and the legs.
What does it mean?
It is believed that an atypical nevus is an indicator of an increased risk of developing a melanoma, with patients with multiple atypical nevi being at a greater risk. However, since an atypical nevus is not a melanoma, it does not have to be treated aggressively, and instead should be observed for changes, biopsied or conservatively excised.
Am I at risk of developing melanoma skin cancer?
If you have one or more of the following, it is considered a risk factor for developing melanoma:
- A personal history of melanoma
- Family history (especially first-degree relatives) of melanoma
- Fair skin that easily burns or freckle rather than tan, especially when the person has blond or red hair, and blue, green or gray eyes
- History of excessive childhood sun-exposure or blistering sunburns
- History of exposure to UV rays from the sun, tanning beds or sun lamps
- History of dysplastic / atypical moles
Regular self-examination and periodic visits for examination by your dermatologist are suggested.
Melanoma and the ABCDE warning signs
Melanomas are cancerous moles and are the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Although melanomas account for only about 5% of all skin cancer cases, melanoma is the leading cause of all skin cancer-related deaths - totaling nearly 80%.
A melanoma can develop slowly in or near an existing mole, or can appear suddenly as a new mole. Early detection and removal is the best way to save lives. The following ABCDE approach can help you identify moles that you should show your doctor:
- A = Asymmetry
One half of the mole does not match the other half
- B = Border
The edges of the mole are ragged, blotched, irregular or blurred
- C = Color
The color of the mole is not uniform throughout. Different shades of tan brown or black are present, while red, white, or blue may also color the mole
- D = Diameter
The width of the mole is greater than six millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser), although early melanomas may be smaller in size. Any growth of a mole should be of concern.
- E = Elevation / Evolution
A mole that has different elevations or any mole that has changed (evolved) should be checked by a dermatologist as soon as the change is detected. Moles that bleed, itch or become ulcerated should also raise an alarm.
Your dermatologist at SkinCentral may suggest different options for removing an unwanted mole. Treatment is tailored to the individual and the particular location and type of mole.
Skin biopsies are performed for suspicious moles and other bumps in the evaluation and removal of melanoma and skin cancers.
Laser treatment is also available for selected patients with unwanted and benign harmless moles. We do not recommend laser treatment for the removal of suspicious spots and bumps.
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