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Moles

A mole (melanocytic naevus) is a small, brown growth in your skin. Moles are usually circular or oval-shaped and almost every adult has at least a few. They are usually harmless, but occasionally a type of skin cancer (called melanoma) can grow in or near a mole. Skin cancers may also occur in skin without a previous mole, so if a new mole develops, it's important to let your doctor know.

Moles arise in your skin where cells called melanocytes have grouped together. Melanocytes produce a pigment called melanin which gives your skin its colour – where they cluster together your skin is darker. You may have moles when you're born but they usually develop later in childhood. They may change shape or colour over time and some may even go away when you get older.

Moles vary in colour from flesh-coloured to dark brown. They may be raised or have hairs growing out of them. You can have a mole anywhere on your body including your palms and soles, your scalp, your eyes and even under your nails.

The medical term for moles is melanocytic naevus (singular) or melanocytic naevi (plural). You may also see these words written as ‘nevi’ or ‘nevus’, which is the way they are spelt in the USA.

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Maria's mole
Maria’s always wanted to have the moles on her face removed.

Details

  • Types Types of moles

    There are many different types of moles. Some types look very similar to one another and it can be hard to tell them apart. They can also be confused with other skin conditions such as freckles and warts, and a type of birthmark called a haemangioma.

    Moles that you're born with are called congenital moles. They are usually at least 1cm across but can be much bigger. As you grow, they tend to grow with you and may become more raised and hairier as you get older.

    Moles that appear after you're born are called acquired moles. Some of the different types are described below.

    • Junctional melanocytic naevi are flat and round. They are usually mid to dark brown. 
    • Compound melanocytic naevi are slightly raised and are often hairy. Their colour can vary. 
    • Intradermal melanocytic naevi are raised bumps and often hairy. They may not be any darker than the rest of your skin. 
    • Blue naevi are dark blue and are usually found on your face, hands or feet. 
    • Atypical (also called dysplastic) naevi have an asymmetric appearance (one half doesn’t match the other), contain several colours of pigment and are often larger than other moles. 
    • Halo naevi are more common in children and teenagers. They occur when your immune system rejects the mole, which causes the mole to disappear. A ring of pale skin often surrounds the mole.

    You may develop seborrhoeic warts (keratoses) later in life. They aren't actually moles, although they are often mistaken for them, but are caused when ordinary skin cells build up. Seborrhoeic warts are harmless.

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  • Diagnosis Diagnosis of cancerous moles

    If you’re worried about a mole, see your GP. He or she will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. Your GP may ask you to regularly take a photo of your mole alongside a clear plastic ruler and see if it’s changed. Alternatively your GP might do this for you. This is called mole mapping. There are also lots of clinics that offer a mole mapping service.

    If your GP is concerned about your mole, he or she will refer you to a dermatologist – a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating skin conditions.

    Your dermatologist may suggest excision of your mole. Excision means removing your mole. Usually this operation will be performed under local anaesthetic and you will need some stitches. Your dermatologist will send the skin sample to a laboratory for analysis to find out if it’s benign (not cancerous) or cancerous. The results may take around two to three weeks.

  • Removal Having moles removed

    If your mole doesn’t bother you and your doctor doesn’t suspect it’s cancerous, you can leave it alone.

    Even if your mole isn't cancerous, you may want to have it removed – for example if it catches on things or for cosmetic reasons. You would need to have this done privately.

    The exact procedure to remove your mole will vary depending on what type of mole you have.

    • A shave excision. This is where the mole is removed and left to heal gradually.
    • An excision biopsy. This is where the mole is removed and the wound closed with stitches. The number of stitches will depend on the size of the mole.

    Your doctor will give you a local anaesthetic before any of these procedures are done. This completely blocks pain from the area and you will stay awake during the procedure.

  • Mole removal

    At our Bupa Health Centres, we offer self-pay health services for a wide range of conditions, including mole removal.

  • Causes Causes of moles

    The exact reasons why you may develop moles aren't fully understood at present. However, many types seem to run in families, particularly atypical (dysplastic) naevi. The likelihood of having lots of moles also seems to be inherited. If you have fair skin, you will probably have more moles.

    You're also more likely to have moles if you spend more time in the sun, especially if you have done so during childhood.

    Moles can also be affected by changes in your hormones. This commonly happens during puberty or pregnancy.

  • Complications Complications of moles

    Most moles are harmless and don't cause any problems. However, some moles can become sore or inflamed if you catch them on things. Plucking hair out of your mole may cause a painful inflamed lump to develop underneath it. If you want to remove the hair it’s better to shave it, or to have the hair removed by electrolysis or laser treatment.

    Certain types of moles are more likely to develop into the skin cancer melanoma. Very large congenital moles have a slightly higher risk of developing melanoma. People who have lots of moles, particularly atypical moles, are at a higher risk of getting melanoma.

    It's a good idea to check your moles regularly (monthly) so that you're aware if they change shape or colour. See your GP if you notice:

    • an existing mole has grown
    • a mole develops a ragged/uneven edge
    • a mole that develops varying shades of colour
    • a mole that bleeds, oozes or crusts
    • a mole that feels painful or itches
    • a mole that isn’t symmetrical in colour or shape

    An easy way to remember these changes is to use the ABCDE method.

    A – asymmetry (one half doesn’t match the other)
    B – border irregularity
    C – colour change
    D – diameter (greater than 6mm across)
    E – evolution (a mole that is changing in size, shape or colour)

    It’s important to remember these symptoms aren’t always caused by skin cancer, but if you have them see your GP.

  • Living with moles Living with moles

    The more moles you have, the higher your risk of developing skin cancer. So, if you have a lot of moles, take extra care to look after your skin when you're out in the sun. This can help to prevent sunburn, which can increase your chance of developing skin cancer. If you're spending longer than a few minutes out in the sun, the following advice will help you stay protected.

    • Wear at least SPF30 sunscreen.
    • Cover up with a wide brimmed hat, T-shirt and UV protective sunglasses.
    • Seek shade when you can at the hottest times of the day (usually between 11am and 3pm).
    • Don’t use tanning beds, or sunbeds.

    Keep an eye on your mole/s and if you have any concerns about a mole that’s changed, arrange a review with your GP as soon as possible. It’s normal for new moles to develop up until the age of 40. New ones that develop after this time should be checked out. It’s good idea to monitor your moles monthly.

  • FAQs FAQs

    Is it better to get moles removed as a precautionary measure against skin cancer?

    Answer

    No, most moles don’t cause any problems.

    Explanation

    If your GP is concerned about your mole, he or she will refer you to a specialist to have it removed. If you only have mild changes to your mole, then your GP may recommend that you monitor your mole. If you notice any further changes to your mole, you should return to your GP.

    I’ve noticed my child has got some new moles. Is this normal?

    Answer

    Yes. It’s normal for new moles to appear during childhood and adolescence.

    Explanation

    Some children are born with moles – these are called congenital moles. Most children develop moles during their childhood and adolescence. These are called acquired moles. Moles grow as your child grows and you can expect them to become lighter or darker over time. Most moles are quite harmless.

    If you notice a change in the appearance of a mole on your child’s skin (see above) then seek the advice of your GP. See our section on complications of moles for the types of changes to look for.

    If you’re concerned about changes in your child’s moles see your GP.

    What should I do if I think a mole is changing?

    Answer

    It’s important that you see your GP as soon as possible.

    Explanation

    A change in one of your moles may be a sign of melanoma, a type of skin cancer. It’s good to keep an eye on all your moles and see your GP as soon as possible if you notice one of the following things.

    • An existing mole has grown.
    • A mole develops a ragged/uneven edge.
    • A mole develops varying shades of colour.
    • A mole that bleeds, oozes or crusts.
    • A mole that feels painful or itches.
    • A mole that isn’t symmetrical in colour or shape.

    You can use the ABCDE method to help you tell whether or not a mole has features that might mean it’s a melanoma.

    A – asymmetry (one half doesn’t match the other)
    B – border irregularity
    C – colour change
    D – diameter (greater than 6mm across)
    E – evolution (a mole that is getting bigger for example or changing in shape or colour)

    If you're at all concerned, visit your GP. He or she will be able to give you more information based on your symptoms and after examining your mole. For example, he or she may advise you to take a photo of your mole with a clear plastic ruler regularly to check whether or not it’s changing. Monitoring your moles and skin about once a month is a good idea.

    Will having a mole removed leave a scar?

    Answer

    Yes, having your mole removed will leave a scar.

    Explanation

    There are a number of things that will influence the size of your scar after having a mole removed. Generally, the size of your mole will determine the length of your scar. As with all surgical scars there is a small chance that, after removal of your mole, your scar will overgrow and form a larger scar than usual (called keloid scarring). Sometimes the risk of a prominent scar being unsightly is significant, and if the mole has no features to suggest melanoma, your doctor may recommend that you do not have it removed. This is a particularly important issue for moles on the face.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • Melanocytic naevi (moles). British Association of Dermatologists. www.bad.org.uk, published October 2013
    • Nevi. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 6 June 2014
    • Melanocytic nevi. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, published 3 June 2013
    • Intradermal and compound naevi. PatientPlus. www.patient.co.uk/patientplus.asp, published 11 February 2013
    • Moles (melanocytic nevi). www.merckmanuals.com, published March 2013
    • Melanoma and pigmented lesions. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published March 2011
    • Referral guidelines for suspected cancer (CG27). National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2005. www.nice.org.uk
    • Moles. DermNet NZ. www.dermnetnz.org, published 29 December 2013
    • Excision of skin lesions. DermNet NZ. www.dermnetnz.org, published 29 December 2013
    • Moles. American Academy of Dermatology. www.aad.org, accessed 15 July 2014
    • Seborrheic keratoses. American Academy of Dermatology. www.aad.org, accessed 15 July 2014
    • Seborrheic keratoses. Medscape. www.medscape.com, published 19 May 2014
    • Common moles, dysplastic nevi, and risk of melanoma. National Cancer Institute. www.cancer.gov, published 1 November 2011
    • How to protect your skin from sunlight. National Cancer Institute. www.cancer.gov, published 16 September 2011
    • Anaesthesia explained – third edition. The Royal College of Anaesthetists, 2008. www.rcoa.ac.uk
    • Moles in children: what parents should know. SkinCancerNet. www.skincarephysicians.com, accessed 22 July 2014
    • Early detection and self exams. Skin Cancer Foundation. www.skincancer.org, accessed 3 November 2014
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