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Most skin bumps, spots, growths, and moles are harmless. Coloured skin spots, also called pigmented lesions (such as freckles, moles, or flesh-coloured 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 coloured marks on the skin that are present at birth or develop shortly after birth. They can be many different sizes, shapes, and colours, 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 coloured 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:
- Autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and scleroderma.
- Reactions to a bite, such as Lyme disease from a tick bite. For more information, see the topic Lyme Disease.
- Bacterial skin infections, such as impetigo and cellulitis.
- Viral infections, such as chickenpox, shingles, or fifth disease.
- Liver problems, such as hepatitis, which may cause your skin and the whites of your eye to turn yellow (jaundice).
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 colour, 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. These skin growths are almost always harmless. They 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. 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.
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, Non-Melanoma.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or non-binary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
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, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, or natural health products 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 an allergic reaction may include:
- A rash, or raised, red areas called hives.
- Trouble breathing.
Skin changes are a common side effect of many prescription and non-prescription medicines. Common side effects include:
- Rash. Any medicine can cause a rash. Two examples are ASA and antibiotics.
Colour 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.
- 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).
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-coloured or whitish.
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.
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 colour.
- Started to bleed easily.
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.
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.
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-examination to learn about your skin. This will help you spot new skin growths.
- Eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids each day.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
Most non-cancerous 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 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.
Keep babies younger than 12 months out of the sun. If you cannot avoid the sun, use sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat that covers the back of the neck, and clothing to protect your child's skin. Put sunscreen and lip balm with sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) on your child before he or she goes outside. Do not use sunscreen on babies younger than 6 months old.
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 non-prescription medicines do you take?
- Do you have any health risks?
- Male Genital Problems and Injuries
- Toe, Foot, and Ankle Problems, Non-Injury
- Mouth Problems, Non-Injury
- Insect Bites and Stings and Spider Bites
- Sexually Transmitted Infections
- Swollen Glands, Hernias, and Other Lumps Under the Skin
- Rectal Problems
- Tick Bites
- Finger, Hand, and Wrist Problems, Non-Injury
Current as of: February 26, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor MD - Emergency Medicine