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Birthmarks and moles are lesions composed of specialized pigment cells. A mole may be considered a birthmark that appears on the skin surface later in life. The term “nevus” is applied to both entities.
Nevi are common to all people, and someone searching long and hard enough will find at least twelve or more on most individuals. Some nevi may be present at birth, but the majority arise in young adulthood. It is not uncommon for someone in this age group to have forty or more nevi. A large number of them disappear with advancing age.
Nevi come in a variety of different sizes, shapes, and colors. They range in size from pinpoint specks to extensive lesions that may cover the entire back. (This type of birthmark is fortunately very rare). Their color runs the spectrum from blue to tan to pitch black. Some are perfectly fiat, others elevated and dome-shaped. Their surface may be smooth or rough, and some may even have hairs growing out of them.
Many nevi are best left alone. Some occur in areas where they are easily traumatized or cosmetically unacceptable, and these can be removed quite simply. Rarely, a mole may turn into a potentially lethal skin cancer (melanoma), and it is for this reason that nevi should be checked on a periodic basis. The following changes warrant immediate evaluation by a dermatologist:
1. any rapid increase in size;
2. any changes in coloration, especially red or whitish hues;
3. the development of notched, irregular borders;
4. the onset of itching; or
5. the onset of spontaneous bleeding.All persons with a family history of melanoma or a history of repeated sunburns should have their skin examined on a regular basis.