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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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  Skin Cancer: Protecting Your Skin

Check Your Symptoms

Have you had any changes to your skin?
This includes things like a change in the size or shape of a mole, a color change in the skin, or a new skin growth.
Yes
Skin changes
No
Skin changes
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Yes
Symptoms of allergic reaction
No
Symptoms of allergic reaction
Do you have a rash?
Yes
Rash
No
Rash
Are there any symptoms of infection?
Yes
Symptoms of infection
No
Symptoms of infection
Do you think you may have a fever?
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Are there red streaks leading away from the area or pus draining from it?
Yes
Red streaks or pus
No
Red streaks or pus
Do you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, peripheral arterial disease, or any surgical hardware in the area?
"Hardware" includes things like artificial joints, plates or screws, catheters, and medicine pumps.
Yes
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
No
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
Does your skin look yellow (if it does not normally look yellow)?
Yes
Skin looks yellow
No
Skin looks yellow
Do you think that a medicine could be causing the changes in your skin?
Think about whether the skin changes appeared after you began using a new medicine or a higher dose of a medicine.
Yes
Medicine may be causing skin changes
No
Medicine may be causing skin changes
Does your skin itch?
Yes
Itchy skin
No
Itchy skin
Is the itching severe?
Severe means that you are scratching so hard that your skin is cut or bleeding.
Yes
Severe itching
No
Severe itching
Has the itching interfered with sleeping or normal activities for more than 2 days?
Yes
Itching has disrupted sleep or normal activities for more than 2 days
No
Itching has disrupted sleep or normal activities for more than 2 days
Has there been a change in a mole or other skin spot?
Yes
Changes in mole or skin spot
No
Changes in mole or skin spot
Are you concerned about or bothered by any skin changes?
Yes
Skin concerns
No
Skin concerns

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Rash, Age 12 and Older

A new yellow tint to the skin can be a symptom of jaundice. Jaundice occurs when levels of a substance called bilirubin build up in the blood and skin. It may be caused by a problem with the liver or the blood.

With jaundice, the whites of the eyes also may look yellow, and stools may be light-colored or whitish.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction may include:

  • A rash, or raised, red areas called hives.
  • Itching.
  • Swelling.
  • Trouble breathing.

Skin changes are a common side effect of many prescription and nonprescription medicines. Common side effects include:

  • Rash. Any medicine can cause a rash. Two examples are aspirin and antibiotics.
  • Color changes in the skin. A few examples of medicines that can cause this are:
    • Birth control pills.
    • Medicines for heart rhythm problems, such as amiodarone.
    • Antibiotics.
    • Cancer medicines.
    • Seizure medicines.
  • Reactions when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Many medicines can cause these reactions. The reaction may include just the skin that was exposed to the sun (phototoxic reaction), or it can spread to other areas of the skin (photoallergic reaction).

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Symptoms of infection may include:

  • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
  • Red streaks leading from the area.
  • Pus draining from the area.
  • A fever.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Allergic Reaction

A change to a mole or other skin spot can mean that the spot has:

  • Gotten bigger.
  • Developed uneven borders.
  • Gotten thicker, raised, or worn down.
  • Changed color.
  • Started to bleed easily.
Rash, Age 11 and Younger

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

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

Credits

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

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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