Moles: Cosmetic Blemishes Or Something More Dangerous?

Posted on: 30 October 2014

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Do you have a lot of moles on your body? If so, you're not alone. According to WebMD, most people will have 10 to 40 moles by adulthood. Many people are embarrassed by their unsightliness and opt to have them removed. However, there's sometimes a different, more important reason, some people have mole removal. Certain moles can be cancerous. Here's what you need to know about moles and how to spot signs that they might be skin cancer.

What Are Moles?

Moles, also called nevi, are small raised growths  on the skin that can range in color from pink to brown to black. They can be symmetrical or irregular and can appear anywhere on your body, although they occur more often above the waist and on areas exposed to the sun. They usually appear before the age of 30.

Moles are caused when skin cells called melanocytes grow in a cluster rather than being spread throughout. The melanocytes contain melanin, a pigment that gives skin its color, but when clustered, gives the moles a darker color than the surrounding skin.

Types of Moles

The National Cancer Institute, classifies moles into two basic types:  Common moles and dysplastic moles.

  • Common moles are usually about the size of a pencil eraser or smaller. They are round or dome-shaped, have a defined edge and are a consistent color throughout.
  • Dysplastic moles, also known as atypical moles, are larger, often flat, and usually have an uneven or indistinct edge. There can be several different shades of pink, tan or brown in one mole.

Are Moles Cancerous?

The majority of moles are benign. However, in rare cases, some can become cancerous. The National Cancer Institute says that dysplastic moles are more likely to become cancerous than common moles and that the more dysplastic moles you have, the greater the likelihood of developing melanoma, the type of skin cancer associated with moles.

Certain factors can increase the chances that a mole will turn into melanoma:

  • Exposure to UV radiation from sunlight or tanning beds
  • People with fair skin or lots of freckles
  • A family history of melanoma

When Should I Be Concerned?

Early detection of melanoma is key in successfully treating it. Dermatologists or cancer specialists recommend frequent self-exams of moles to check for changes. Have a friend or relative check those you cannot see. If you have many dysplastic moles or a family history of melanoma, you should be checked by a doctor annually, or more frequently if you've had melanoma in the past.

Signs that you should look for include:

  • Changes in size, color or shape
  • The skin on the surface becomes dry and scaly
  • The mole becomes hard or lumpy
  • It starts to itch or ooze

If you notice any of these changes, call your dermatologist immediately and schedule an exam.

Diagnosing Melanoma

The only way to diagnose melanoma is through a biopsy. Your doctor will remove all or part of the mole, depending on size and location.  He or she then sends it to a pathologist to check for cancer cells. This is typically done in a doctor's office and takes just a few minutes.

Treatment

If cancerous cells are discovered, it's important to get rid of the mole completely and immediately so it doesn't spread. The doctor will remove the mole, either through surgical excision, with or without sutures, or use excision with electro-cauterization to close the wound. If the mole is large or deep, the doctor will likely cut away some of the healthy skin around the mole. Laser surgery is not typically used, because it's important to get all the cancerous cells and lasers do not go deep enough.. 

There are few side-effects to the removal other than scarring and a slight chance of infection. Your doctor may recommend an antibacterial ointment, and you should watch for signs of infection, such as redness or swelling. It's important to follow up with an oncologist to check for signs the cancer has spread. Once you've had melanoma, you're at greater risk to develop it again, so your doctor will likely recommend you're diligent about watching your other moles and return every six months or so for a professional exam.