Moles on the Skin
Moles may be almost any color and are usually round to oval in shape. They can appear anywhere on the skin. They can be rough or smooth, flat or raised, single or appear in multiples. Moles occur when cells that are responsible for skin pigmentation, known as melanocytes, grow in clusters instead of being spread out across the skin. Moles are usually less than one-quarter inch in size. Most moles appear by the age of 40 although some moles may appear later in life.
Are Moles Dangerous?
The mole: the “ugly cousin to the freckle” according to a Seinfeld episode several years ago. When all is said and done, moles will behave in one of two ways. Either they do nothing significant and show no changes, in which case they are not a problem or they become melanoma (skin cancer) – a potentially big problem – and sometimes, a fatal one. It may seem ridiculous to think that a mole could kill you, but in some cases, it is true. There are several things recommended to minimize the chance of getting melanoma.
Finding Moles: Skin Examinations
First, seeing a dermatologist for total body skin checks is an important part of your skin health program. The frequency of these exams will be influenced by your personal and family history of skin cancer, and your previous exposure to sources of ultraviolet radiation (the sun and tanning beds), among other things. What constitutes a total body skin exam varies tremendously among doctors, even dermatologists, though one might think the term is pretty self-explanatory. For this exam, you should be asked to take all your clothes off, and be provided with the appropriate medical drape/shorts/top. Your entire skin surface from head to toe should be inspected, including between toes and fingers, scalp, armpits, buttocks, external genitals. An exam of the eyes, mouth, tongue, gums, throat, peripheral vascular, and lymph nodes should be included.
Second, if you don’t know your family medical history, try and find out whom in your family might have had melanoma. If any close blood relatives had melanoma, you are higher risk to get it, and this may affect other recommendations for your skin.
Third, do skin exams at home. To accomplish self-skin exams reasonably well, requires minimal time and skill. Look for obvious changes in the skin; if something is clearly and overtly new, increased in size, changed in color or shape, or has symptoms such as itching, pain, bleeding, not healing. Look for obvious changes or symptoms. Catch these things early, and your chance of survival is much higher.
For most people, daily or near daily bathing is a regular occurrence. While bathing and or drying off, it is fairly easy to inspect the front half of your body for the changes discussed. The potentially tricky part is the scalp and back half of the body. Either you need to use mirrors in some fashion to look or have another person, preferably the same one, consistently look at the scalp and back, on say, a monthly basis. The scalp and back half exam can be accomplished well in most cases in about two minutes. A brief but detailed summary of an at-home self-skin examination can be found in our Patient Education Section
In some cases, a few photographs of potential problem areas or total body photographs, may be used to monitor the skin for changes. If there is something suspicious, taking a photo of it and following it over time may be advocated. Other times, any suspicious lesions will be recommended to be biopsied sooner, rather than followed over time.