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What Are Moles?

A mole is a small lesion in the skin, and is a collection of melanin-producing cells. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its color. Although most moles are usually a brownish color, they can be skin-colored or much darker. Moles can be raised, flat, or rough, and are generally oval or round with a smooth edge. Moles can vary drastically in size, from as tiny as a pinhead to covering an entire arm. Generally, a mole is less than 6mm long.

Moles can change over time in number and appearance. This can happen as a response to a change in hormone levels, such as during adolescence, pregnancy, or older age. Most moles appear during the first 20 to 30 years of our lives, though some may be present from birth. People with fair skin tend to have more moles than those with dark skin. Although they may look similar, sunspots and freckles are not moles.

The average person has about 10 to 14 moles, which can be anywhere on the body, including under the nails and on the scalp. Moles that appear after age 20 should be shown to Dr. Gross, although moles may continue to appear through middle age. You should also see Dr. Gross if there is change in a mole’s appearance and/or texture, if it’s painful or oozes, or it has a burning sensation.

The majority of moles are harmless. In rare cases moles can develop into a form of skin cancer known as malignant melanoma, which is why moles should be checked regularly for changes in their appearance and/or texture.

If Dr. Gross feels the changes to the mole are mild, he may take some photographs to clinically document it and measure the dimensions of the mole to record the changes over time. The patient may be asked to come back in a few months to have the mole checked again to see if any of the dimensions have changed.

If Dr. Gross suspects the mole may be a melanoma, a form of skin cancer, or if the mole is bothersome to the patient, he will cut the mole out during an excision biopsy, attempting to surgically remove the entire mole at one time. After removing the mole, it will be sent to a lab to be reviewed for signs of cancerous cells. If the results come back with a suspected melanoma, Dr. Gross may order additional tests to determine whether the cells have spread.

If a mole is going to form, there is nothing you can do to prevent it. However, the best thing you can do to protect yourself from skin cancer, no matter how many or few moles you have or what your complexion is, is to wear sunscreen every day and limit your sun exposure.

If you have questions about moles or skin care, or would like to learn more about dermatology, please contact The Georgia Dermatology Center at (770) 781-5077.

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