Sizing Up the Potential Health Risks of Moles

Ranging in color from brown to black, moles can appear almost anywhere at any point from birth through later years in life. Formed when skin cells group together rather than spread out, moles often start out lighter in color before darkening with sun exposure or pregnancy. Most moles are harmless (benign). However, it’s important to know when moles may pose a serious health risk.

When Moles Require Some Attention

Moles smaller and circular in shape tend to pose no serious health risk, although this doesn’t mean that such moles can’t become cancerous over time. Research suggests moles that appear for the first time around the age of 30 also tend to pose a more significant health risk than moles first appearing during the teen or adolescent years. Warning signs that moles require further evaluation include:

  • Noticeable changes in height and size of the mole (anything bigger than a pencil eraser should be checked)
  • Changes in the color of moles (usually going from a light or medium shade of brown to darker tones)
  • Lack of symmetry within the mole (one half of a mole looks different than the other)
Mole removal

Melanoma and Moles

Research also suggests that moles present at birth (congenital nevi) have a greater chance of developing into melanoma later in life. The same is true of irregular and larger moles (dysplastic nevi), considered 12-times more likely to be cancerous. Men tend to develop cancerous moles on their backs while women tend to have such moles on their legs, although warning signs of moles that may indicate skin cancer can appear anywhere. Possible signs of melanoma visible in moles include:

  • Moles changing shape (often getting an irregular edge)
  • Moles that become itchy or sensitive/painful to the touch
  • Moles that become inflamed or start to bleed

Treating Suspicious Moles

A dermatologist may treat an irregular or suspicious mole by recommending removal. If a patient isn’t comfortable with removal, tissue can be removed from the mole (biopsied) and examined under a microscope to determine if cancer is present. Should the tissue be cancerous, the entire mole is removed along with adjacent normal skin.

If there’s any doubt that a mole is more than just a harmless growth, it’s best to err on the side of caution and have it evaluated by a dermatologist. The good news is that if a malignant (cancerous) mole is detected early, the odds of successful treatment and recovery are relatively high.