Are Atypical Moles a Sign of Melanoma?

July 19, 2018

Finding a mole can be cause for concern for many people, and that is especially true if it’s an atypical mole. Knowing what to look for in a mole, what an atypical mole is, how it can affect you and what you need to do to treat it is important not only for caring for your skin but for your overall health as well.

The official medical name for an atypical mole is dysplastic nevus (nevi if there’s more than one), and it is called atypical because it has a different look than a normal mole. “While normal moles are small spots that are generally round and have a regular shape, atypical moles are asymmetric and irregular in shape,” explains Dr. Nicholas Snavelya board-certified dermatologist and fellowship-trained Mohs surgeon at U.S. Dermatology Partners Georgetown.

Normal moles will have regular, consistent pigmentation that may be tan or pink, while dysplastic nevi can have more than one color and can be very dark. Like other moles, they can develop anywhere on the body, but they are most likely to be found on the back, chest, buttocks, scalp, and breasts.

What You Need to Know About Dysplastic Nevi

It often takes a professional to tell the difference between an atypical mole and melanoma. Like dysplastic nevi, melanoma presents itself as an asymmetrical, multicolored growth with an irregular border. Both atypical moles and melanoma can get larger over time, so it’s important to have them checked out by a professional.

Some other characteristics of atypical moles are:

  • Larger than average moles
  • The surface can be bumpy or smooth
  • Can have a raised darker center surrounded by a flat, lighter area

While dysplastic nevi are not cancerous, they do have the potential to develop cancer. Typically, the more abnormal the mole, the greater the risk of cancer associated with it. If it’s only slightly abnormal, your dermatologist might choose to monitor it and watch for future changes. However, if the abnormality is moderate to severe, chances are your dermatologist will schedule a biopsy and remove the mole completely.

Removing the mole ensures that, even if it has not yet developed into melanoma, it no longer has the chance to develop into something more dangerous.

Are You at Risk for Atypical Moles?

Some individuals are more at risk for developing dysplastic nevi, and one of the biggest factors is family history.

“If your family has a known history of atypical moles and/or melanoma, you’ll need to be particularly diligent about monitoring any moles that develop and the changes they go through,” Dr. Snavely says, adding that the condition is much more common in Caucasians.

“People who have family members with atypical moles are at greater risk than the rest of the population for developing melanoma — even if there’s no history of melanoma.”

And, if there is a family history of melanoma, people with atypical moles have up to a 27% higher chance of developing melanoma.

What to Do If You Develop Atypical Moles

If you discover an atypical mole — or more than one — you don’t want to wait and “see what happens.” Since melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, you want to make sure that you aren’t putting yourself at risk. Having it checked out by a professional is the best way to put your mind at ease.

Some signs that it could be melanoma or is at risk for developing into melanoma include:

  • Itching
  • Pain
  • Raised surface
  • Bleeding
  • Crusting
  • Swelling
  • Oozing
  • Bluish-black coloring

Even if the mole is benign, you’ll want to continue to conduct regular, thorough skin checks on your own, but also schedule a more rigorous skin exam with your dermatologist at regular intervals. Your doctor will help you decide how often you should have skin exams based on your results and your risk factors.

If your doctor recommends that the mole be removed, he or she will most likely use cryotherapy, which is a fast, simple and non-invasive procedure that uses liquid nitrogen to remove growths on the skin.

How to Care for Your Skin After Having a Mole Removed

Following the removal of a mole, you’ll want to provide extra care to the affected area. You may have some redness or itching in the days after the treatment, but the level of discomfort is rather low and can be eased with cold compresses or an over-the-counter pain reliever. Be aware that blisters can form on the area that has been treated.

As part of your daily treatment regimen, you’ll want to:

  1. Wash (but not scrub) the affected area every day.
  2. Apply Vaseline to the area daily to reduce the formation of a scab and to minimize irritation.
  3. Use Polysporin and a bandage if it forms a blister that drains or weeps.

Remember to leave the area alone and resist the urge to scratch it if it begins to itch. Cover it with a bandage if necessary to avoid scratching or picking at it; it’s important that the area is allowed to heal.

Atypical moles can appear at any time, and even after they are treated, it’s a good reminder that practicing safe skin care is important. Become diligent about wearing a sunscreen that’s right for your skin every time you leave the house, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

In addition to adopting a serious sunscreen habit, avoid going out in the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is at its most intense, and always wear UV-blocking sunglasses outside to protect your eyes.

Make sure you keep the head-to-toe skin exam appointments with your physician and conduct a monthly self-examination to make sure no new moles have appeared on your skin.

Not all atypical moles are a problem, but there’s no reason to take a chance. Early detection can prevent serious complications down the road, so watch for atypical moles and contact your dermatologist immediately if you find one.

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