Almost everyone has a few moles. But sometimes it can be hard to tell if they’re just cosmetic nuisances or something more serious.
While most moles are not dangerous, an atypical mole may be a sign of melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer.
How can I tell if a mole is atypical?
Recognizing Common Signs of Melanoma
New or Changing Moles Later in Life
While moles often appear or change during childhood and adolescence, it is much less common for moles to develop in adults over 25 years of age. If you notice a new mole or if a mole changes color, shape, or size, have it checked out by a doctor.
ABCDEs of Melanoma
(A) are asymmetrical
(B) have a poorly defined border
(C) have shades of different colors
(D) have a diameter larger than a pencil eraser
(E) are evolving
...may be early signs of melanoma.
Moles that start bleeding unexpectedly or are continuously bleeding should be evaluated by a doctor.
Be Aware of Potential Risk Factors
Your chances of developing skin cancer often rise if you have:
- More than 50 moles
- Especially large moles
- A parent, sibling, or child who has had melanoma
- Had melanoma before
Patients that meet any of these criteria should undergo regular exams. That way, your doctor can identify any signs of skin cancer in its earliest and most treatable stage.
How Do Moles Turn into Melanoma?
Found throughout the skin, cells called melanocytes create the pigment that colors our skin. Moles are the result of several melanocytes clustering together.
While the exact cause of melanoma is unknown, exposure to UV radiation from the sun or from tanning beds can increase the risk of moles becoming cancerous.
More skin cancers are diagnosed in the US each year than all other cancers combined...[In 2018] About 91,270 new melanomas will be diagnosed (about 55,150 in men and 36,120 in women). American Cancer Society
What Can I Do to Protect Myself?
Although there is no guaranteed way to prevent skin cancer, you can take certain steps to reduce your risk.
Protect Your Skin from the Sun
Because exposure to UV rays increases the risk of melanoma, you can protect yourself by staying in the shade during the sunniest part of the day, wearing wide-brimmed hats and long sleeves, applying sunscreen regularly, and avoiding tanning beds.
Perform Regular Self-Exams
In addition to regular visits to your doctor, you should also conduct your own exam once a month. Learn the common signs of melanoma so that you can identify potential moles, record their location, and track changes.
What to Expect during a Professional Diagnosis
To determine your baseline risk for melanoma, your doctor will review your medical and family history. They can then perform a physical examination to identify any atypical moles. Should they notice a problem area, the doctor can remove a small amount of tissue to send to a laboratory for analysis. In the case that the mole is cancerous, the doctor may recommend taking a series of x-rays or MRIs to ensure it has not affected any other areas.
Some atypical moles may need to be removed, while others may simply need to be watched.
A Simple Extraction
Your doctor can usually excise a mole in a single office visit. After administering a local anesthetic to numb the area, the doctor can remove cells with a scalpel. They can then suture the area to prevent visible scarring.
In some cases, your doctor may shave the mole off to avoid the need for stitches. After shaving the mole flush or slightly below the surface level of skin, the doctor may cauterize the area to stop any bleeding.
Do not remove a mole on your own! Unless you are a medical professional, doing so can easily lead to infection and scarring. If it is cancerous and you do not remove every cell, cancer could spread.
In most cases, your skin should heal quickly. However, if the mole comes back, contact your dermatologist immediately.
Stay Proactive to Protect Your Health
While moles are not usually dangerous, it is always better to play it safe when it comes to your health. Schedule a consultation with your doctor to undergo an evaluation if you have any changing moles or you've developed moles in your adult years.