Moles, also called nevi, are small, pigmented (colored) 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 benign (not cancer) and harmless. But some become cancerous. That's why you need to watch the moles on your body and tell your health care provider about any concern you.
What are moles?
Moles are a type of pigmented mark. Freckles, which often are sprinkled across the bridge of the nose, the cheeks, and the arms, are another type of pigmented mark. 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. Freckles are flat.
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 that appear after you are 30 or that change in certain ways may become a problem. These moles may turn into melanoma, a type of skin cancer. Melanoma is one of the fastest growing cancers in the United States, but it is often curable if caught early. But this disease can be life-threatening, particularly when not diagnosed early. The more moles someone has, the higher the risk. Risk is also higher for those who have had more lifetime exposure to the sun, severe blistering sunburns, exposure to tanning beds, a prior personal history of cancer, and those with a family history of skin cancer. To manage your risk, it's smart to check your moles for changes and ask your health care provider to perform 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 health care provider. To check your moles, you'll need:
- A full-length mirror
- A stool or chair to sit on while you check your feet
If you have a lot of moles, take digital photos of them each month. 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 health care 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 elevation
- Asymmetry (when the sides don't match)
- Ragged, notched, or blurred borders
- Varied colors within the same mole
- Size is larger than 5 mm or 6 mm in diameter (the size of a pencil eraser)