Common Moles and the risk of melanoma

  • A common mole: a little growth on the skin and its colour is either pink, tan or brown.  It also has a distinct edge.  People who have more than 50 common moles have a greater risk of developing a dangerous type of skin cancer called melanoma.  Most common moles do not turn into melanoma.
  • A Dysplastic Nevus: it is an unusual mole and is flat and large.  It is asymmetrical in shape and the edge is indistinct.  The colouring is a mixture of pink brown and tan.  People who have several dysplastic moles have a greater risk of developing melanoma, but generally they do not turn into melanoma.
  • The time to see a doctor is if the moles start to bleed, ooze or even start to itch.  Also if the shape, size or colour of the mole changes, as well as if a new mole appears and looks nothing like the other moles.
  • The only way to diagnose melanoma is if the tissue is removed and it is then checked for cancer cells.

What is a common mole?

A common mole is when pigment cells (melanocytes) grow in clusters on the skin.  The average adult has between 10 and 40 common moles of their bodies.  Common moles are usually found on areas that are exposed to the sun and are usually above the waist area.  You will rarely find them appearing on the scalp, breast or even the buttocks area 

Some people have been born with common moles, but this is not a common occurrence.  Common moles usually only appear later on in childhood.  Common moles develop in people up until the age of 40, and thereafter the existing moles tend to fade away the older the person gets.

What does a common mole look like? 

The common mole is not bigger than 5 millimetres wide.  Its appearance is round or oval, and has a smooth surface with a distinct edge and has a dome shape.  The common mole has an even colour of pink, tan or brown.  People who have a lighter complexion usually have moles lighter in colour than those of a person who has a darker complexion.  Below are a few pictures of common moles.*

Can a common mole turn into melanoma?

Common moles usually don’t turn into melanoma.  However, people who have more than 50 common moles do have an increased chance of them developing into melanoma.

Below are some indicators of when to see check your mole map 

–          If the colour changes

–          If the mole gets smaller or bigger

–          If the shape, texture or the height of the mole changes

–          If the surface skin becomes dry and/or scaly

–          If the mole becomes hard or lumpy

–          If the mole starts to become itchy

–          If the mole starts to bleed or starts to ooze.

What is a Dysplastic Nevus

This kind of mole looks different from the common mole.  A dysplastic nevus mole is also referred to as an “atypical mole”.  The difference between the common mole and the dysplastic nevus mole is that the dysplastic nevus mole is bigger and the colour, the surface and the border may be different.

 The size of the dysplastic nevus mole is usually larger than 5 millimetres wide.  The colour of this type of mole is a mixture between pink up to dark brown.  The appearance is usually flat, a little scaly, or it can have a pebbly surface.  The edge is irregular and fades into the surrounding skin.  Below are some picture of what it looks like.*

The dysplastic nevus usually appears on areas of the skin that is exposed to the sun such as on the back.  They can however also appear on areas which are not exposed to the sun such as your scalp, your breasts and even areas below your waist.  People who have dysplastic nevus moles, usually also have common moles.  Depending on the person they could have as little as 1 or 2 dysplastic nevus moles while others could have more than 10.

Can a Dysplastic Nevus turn into Melanoma?

Yes there is a possibility, but mostly they do not turn into melanoma.  Mostly they tend to stay stable over time.  Research has showed that people who have more than 5 dysplastic nevi have a greater risk of developing melanoma.

What should people do if they have a dysplastic nevus?

No matter who you are or where you are you should always protect your skin from the sun and definitely stay away from sun beds and sun lamps.  But if you have dysplastic nevi it is even more important that you protect your skin from UV rays.  It is also recommended by doctors that you check your skin at least once a month if you have dysplastic nevi.

If you see any of the below mentioned changes please see your doctor as soon as possible.

–          If the colour changes

–          If the mole gets smaller or bigger

–          If the shape, texture or the height of the mole changes

–          If the surface skin becomes dry and/or scaly

–          If the mole becomes hard or lumpy

–          If the mole starts to become itchy

–          If the mole starts to bleed or starts to ooze.

People who have dysplastic nevi should have their doctor examine their skin.  Some doctors and people take pictures of the dysplastic mole so that it will be easier for them to see if any changes have occurred.  If you have more than 5 dysplastic nevi your doctor will want to conduct a skin exam 1 or twice a year.  If there is a history of dysplastic nevi in your family the doctor might want to see you every 3 to 6 months.

Should you have a common mole or a dysplastic mole removed by your doctor to prevent them changing to melanoma?

The answer is no, because these moles do not usually turn to melanoma.  Another reason is that even if you do have them removed, melanoma could appear as a new colored area on your skin.  So doctors usually only remove a mole that has changed colour or a new colored area on the skin.

What is Melanoma?

Melanoma begins in melanocytes and is a type of skin cancer.  It is very dangerous as is can spread to nearby skin tissue as well as to the organs such as the lungs, and liver.  It can also spread to the bones and to the brain.  The earlier melanoma is detected the more successful the treatment will be.

Most melanocytes are found in the skin and therefore melanoma can occur on any skin surface.  Not only can melanoma develop from the common mole or from dysplastic nevi, it can also develop on normal skin.  Melanoma has also been known to develop in the eye, the digestive tract as well as other areas in the body. 

When melanoma develops in men it usually develops on the head, neck or back.  With woman melanoma usually develops on the back or on the lower part of the legs.

Interestingly enough, people who are dark skinned are less likely to develop melanoma as opposed to fair skinned people.  On the rare occasion that melanoma has developed on people with dark skin, it is usually found under their fingernails, or under their toenails, on the palms of their hands or on the soles of their feet.

What does melanoma look like?

If an existing mole changes colour, size or texture it is usually the first signs of melanoma.  It can also appear as a new coloured area on the skin.  

–          Asymmetry :          half of the shape of the mole does not match the other half

–          Border that is irregular:   the edges of the mole are ragged, notched or can even have a blurred outline.  The pigment also tends to spread into the surrounding skin.

–          Colour that is uneven:       there are a few shades of colour present in the mole. These shades include black, brown, tan, white, grey, red, pink and in some cases even blue.

–          Diameter:  there is usually an increase in the size of the mole.  Melanomas are usually bigger than 6 millimetres wide.

–          Evolving:    the appearance of the mole has changed over a few weeks or months.

Melanoma can appear differently in each individual.  Some people will have all the ABCDE features, while others may only have one or two.  Below are some pictures of some types of melanoma.*

In advanced cases of melanoma the appearance of the mole changes.  The surface of the mole could break down and look scraped; it could also become lumpy and even hard.  The mole may even start bleeding and oozing.  There might be some itching, tenderness and it might even be painful.

How is Melanoma diagnosed?

This is a fairly quick and simple procedure that can be done in the doctor’s office, a clinic and in a hospital.  The doctor will remove all or part of the skin that seems abnormal, and will have it sent to a lab for testing. The pathologist in the lab will then examine the skin under a microscope to check for melanoma.


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