What are moles?

A mole is a collection of melanocytes (cells that produce pigment) that live near the top layer of the skin. Moles are typically black, brown or flesh-colored and can appear anywhere on the skin.

Moles typically appear during a person’s first 25 years of life. Although most people have at least a few moles, some people can develop 40 moles or more by adulthood. As you age, moles may change colors, become raised or slowly disappear. Most moles are harmless, but some types of moles can increase your risk of developing melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer.

Types of moles

  • Atypical moles
    Atypical moles, also known as dysplastic nevus, can appear like melanoma. Nevus is a medical term for mole. If you have two or more moles, it is referred to as nevi. Atypical moles are characterized by their irregular shape, mixture of color, larger size and location.

    If you have an atypical mole, it is important to have it evaluated by your dermatologist. You are at greater risk for developing melanoma from an atypical mole. Your risk increases if you have four or more atypical moles, if you previously had melanoma or you have a first-degree family member who has or had melanoma.
  • Congenital moles
    Approximately one out of every 100 people are born with a mole. When this occurs, it is called a congenital mole. Congenital moles range in size from very small to very large. If you are born with a congenital mole, you are more likely to develop melanoma.
  • Spitz nevus
    A spitz nevus mole is a type of mole that looks like a melanoma. If you have a Spitz nevus mole, your doctor may have to do a biopsy to ensure it is not a melanoma. Spitz nevus moles are often pink and raised in a dome shape. In some cases, they have an opening that oozes pus. Although most Spitz nevus moles appear on your skin before you turn 20 years old, additional moles can form after this age.
  • Acquired mole
    An acquired mole, also known as a common mole, is one that appears on your skin after you are born. If you have lighter skin, you could have as many of 40 acquired moles. If you have more than 50 acquired moles, you are at greater risk of developing melanoma.

Causes of moles

Moles occur when the pigmenting creating cells, melanocytes, grow in a cluster together instead of spreading out. Moles may darken with sun exposure, while you are pregnant or during the teen years.

Risk factors for moles

If your mole becomes itchy or starts bleeding, consult your doctor to examine it for abnormalities. Also, if you have a new mole or one that is changing in color, size or shape, it should be evaluated.

Symptoms of moles

A mole is typically brown but can be black, red, pink, blue, skin-toned, tan or colorless. It also has the following characteristics:

  • Round
  • Slightly raised or flat
  • Does not change very much month to month

Diagnosis of moles

Your Mercy Health dermatologist can typically determine if you have a mole during a clinic visit. During a skin exam, your doctor will inspect your entire body looking for any mole that may appear suspicious. If he or she suspects the mole may be cancerous, you may need a tissue biopsy. The tissue will be closely examined under the microscope for any abnormal cells.

Treatments for moles

Although most moles do not need treatment, contact your doctor if you have a mole that has any of the following characteristics:

  • It looks like skin cancer or melanoma
  • It irritates your skin as it rubs against other surfaces
  • It is unattractive or in a prominent spot on your body

Your doctor can generally remove a suspicious mole during an office visit. The following techniques may be used to remove the mole:

  • Surgical excision
    A surgical excision is a technique where your Mercy Health dermatologist will remove the entire mole by cutting it out of the skin. After the mole is removed, your doctor will likely send a sample of tissue to a laboratory to examine it for cancerous cells.
  • Surgical shave
    During a surgical shave, your dermatologist will use a surgical blade to completely remove a mole. Your doctor will send a tissue sample to a laboratory to examine for the presence of cancer.

Do not try to remove a mole by yourself. You could cause an infection or leave a scar. You could also have cancer that would go undetected.

Once removed, most moles do not return. If they do return, schedule an appointment with your Mercy Health dermatologist right away to ensure the growth is not cancerous.

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