Moles: What Are They?

In La Jolla

By Nasrin Mani, M.D.

Moles: What Are They?

You may notice that you have small, roundish colored markings at various points on your body; these are moles and are typically benign (not dangerous). Moles are skin growths (medically referred to as “lesions”) that can occur anywhere on your body. Their scientific name is “melanocytic nevi,” because they involve the growth of pigment cells which are known as melanocytes.

Your moles may be a variety of colors from flesh colored to pink to different shades of brown or black and typically require no treatment as they are generally not harmful. But it is possible for a mole to develop into a malignant melanoma or cancerous mole…more on what to beware of below.

Who Has Moles and What Do They Look Like?

Almost everyone has moles of some kind. You may have had several moles – known as congenital melanocytic nevi – since birth, and teenagers will often develop moles as they grow. Exposure to sunlight can increase your chance of developing moles, but some will typically fade away as you grow older.

Your moles can take on a variety of appearances and may look nothing like the moles of other people you know. They can be flat or may protrude from your skin, and may be anywhere from flesh toned to brown or almost black. Most moles are circular or oval-shaped and can range from several millimeters to several centimeters in diameter.

Treating Your Existing Moles

Although most moles are harmless, you may feel that they are unsightly or have noticed that they have become rough or irritated, especially if they are in an area that is rubbed by clothing. For those that are protruding or uncomfortable, a shave biopsy may be an option you can choose. This procedure involves numbing the skin with local anesthetic and removing the protruding mole portion with a scalpel. This will typically leave a scar or mark which may be the same color as your original mole.
When Moles May be Dangerous

It is possible for a mole to present a danger to your health if it becomes atypical. An atypical mole is, for all practicality, a mole that is not typical of the average mole you see or may have lived with for a long time.  An atypical (abnormal) mole may occur as a new growth on the skin or as part of an existing mole, and in some cases (atypical-nevus syndrome) hundreds of new moles can appear. These atypical moles can place you at risk for developing melanoma (skin cancer) and should always be monitored by a physician.

It is a good idea to do a monthly self-exam in order to see if any of your moles have grown or changed or to see if you have new ones that you did not have previously. If you notice that an existing mole has become asymmetrical (not the same on both halves), has fuzzy edges, is more than one color, is larger in diameter than 6 millimeters (size of a pencil eraser) or is changing rapidly, seeking the advice of a medical professional is recommended. Early detection is the key to successful treatment of cancerous moles.

Treatments for Atypical or Cancerous Moles

If your moles are suspect, Dr. McLeod may recommend an excisional biopsy, in which the moles and the full thickness of the skin under them are removed and analyzed. If cancerous cells are detected, a wide excision is recommended.

Continued self-monitoring and assessments done on a regular basis by your provider are recommended in order to minimize further risk.


Link to Skin Cancer page



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