Moles, also called nevi, are small, colored (pigmented) marks on the skin. They have no known purpose. Many moles appear before age 30, but they also increase frequently as people age. Moles most often are not cancer (benign) and are harmless. But some become cancerous (malignant). That’s why you need to watch the moles on your body and tell your healthcare provider about any that concern you.
What are moles?
Moles are a type of pigmented mark. Freckles are another type of pigmented mark. They are often sprinkled across the bridge of the nose, the cheeks, and the arms. Moles can appear on any part of the body. There are many types, sizes, and shapes of moles. Most moles are solid brown. In most cases they are flat or dome-shaped, smooth, and have well-defined edges.
Why worry about moles?
Most moles are benign and don’t require treatment. You can have moles removed if you don’t like the way they look or feel. But moles may become a problem if they appear after you are 30, or if they change in certain ways. These moles may turn into melanoma, a type of skin cancer. Melanoma is one of the fastest growing cancers in the U.S. It is often curable if caught early. But this disease can be life-threatening, particularly when not diagnosed early. Your risk for melanoma is higher if you:
Have a lot of moles
Have had more lifetime exposure to the sun
Have had severe blistering sunburns
Use tanning beds
Have a personal or family history of skin cancer
To manage your risk, it’s smart to check your moles for changes and ask your healthcare provider to do a thorough skin exam when you have a physical exam. To do this, you first need to learn where your moles are. Then, be sure to check your moles each month.
Checking your moles
You can check many of your moles each month. You can do this right after you shower and before you get dressed. Check your body from head to toe. Then, make a list of your moles. If you find any new moles or changes in your moles, call your healthcare provider. To check your moles, you’ll need:
If you have a lot of moles, take digital photos of them. Make sure to take photos both up close and from a distance. These can help you see if any moles change over time.
When to seek medical treatment
See your healthcare provider if your moles hurt, itch, ooze, bleed, thicken, become crusty, or show other changes. Also, be sure to call your health care provider if your moles show any of the following signs of melanoma:
A change in size, shape, color, or height
The sides don’t match (asymmetry)
Ragged, notched, or blurred borders
Different colors within the same mole
Size is larger than 5 mm or 6 mm in diameter (the size of a pencil eraser)