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What are moles?
Moles, or nevi, are spots on the skin. They can be flat or raised, large or small, oval or round, mottled or even-colored.
Their shade is caused by pigment cells, called melanocytes, and they can range from tan to pink, brown, or black. They can appear anywhere on the skin. No one knows exactly what causes moles, but almost everyone has at least a few.
About 1 in 100 babies is born with a mole. These birthmark moles are called congenital nevi. Other types of moles are most likely to develop in the first 20 years of life, though it's possible to get moles at any age. Moles can develop over time or they can appear suddenly.
Do moles change over time?
Yes. Moles generally go through a life cycle of about 50 years of gradual change. Typically they start out flat and freckle-like, then enlarge over time. They commonly become darker during the teen years, during pregnancy, and on exposure to the sun. Some develop hairs, and some become more raised and lighter in color.
Are moles dangerous?
Most moles aren't dangerous, but almost 50 percent of melanomas (a serious type of skin cancer) start in moles.
The good news is that since melanomas are very rare in young children, there's no need to panic if your child has a mole. But it's still a good idea to monitor moles carefully. Melanomas do start showing up as early as the teen years.
Some moles are more dangerous than others. A congenital mole – one your child was born with – is more prone to developing melanoma. Your doctor should examine any congenital moles at well-child visits and refer you to a dermatologist if they need further evaluation.
Another type of mole that's more likely to develop melanoma is a dysplastic nevus, or atypical mole. These are larger than a pencil eraser and irregular in shape.
Usually they have uneven color, with lighter, uneven borders and dark brown centers. Sometimes there are black dots at the edges.
Your child's doctor or dermatologist will want to examine any atypical moles.
What should I watch for in my child's mole?
Besides having your doctor or dermatologist monitor your child's moles during regular visits, it's a good idea to keep an eye on your child's moles yourself.
The American Academy of Dermatology has a few guidelines to help you determine whether a mole needs prompt professional attention. They're called the ABCDs:
- A is for asymmetry – if one half of the mole doesn't match the other half
- B is for the border of the mole – if the edge of the mole is ragged, notched, or blurred in any way
- C is for color – if the mole is a mix of brown, black, and tan rather than one solid color throughout
- D is for diameter – if the mole is larger than a pencil eraser (about 6 mm, or just shy of 1/4 inch)
If you notice any problem with the ABCDs, make an appointment with your child's doctor to have the mole examined. Also, if the mole is growing noticeably or itching or bleeding, it's time to have the doctor take a look.
Should I have my child's mole removed?
There's usually no need, but if your child has a mole that's uncomfortable because it's in an area that's often rubbed, talk with a dermatologist about the options. The mole may be easy to remove in the doctor's office.
Is there any way to prevent moles from developing?
It's mostly a matter of genes, but sun exposure can increase the number of moles and darken the ones that already exist, especially in people with lighter skin. So you might want to keep your child out of the sun during peak daylight hours.
When you do head outdoors, make sure your child is wearing sunscreen. Choose parks and playgrounds with plenty of shade, and have him wear wide-brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts and pants whenever practical.