Mole or melanoma – how to tell the difference

July 23, 2021 | by George I. Salti, M.D.

Summer is here. It's time to take a good look at the skin you’ve been hiding under warm clothes.

If you notice a suspicious bump, blemish, dark unsightly mole or one of the signs below, contact your doctor about your concerns.

These are some signs of melanoma:

  • A sore that doesn’t heal
  • Spread of pigment from the border of a spot into surrounding skin
  • Redness or a new swelling beyond the border of a mole
  • Change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness or pain
  • Change in the surface of a mole – scariness, oozing, bleeding or the appearance of a bump

It can be difficult to tell the difference between a regular mole and melanoma. One of the first signs of melanoma is a change in the shape, color, size or feel of an existing mole.  Use the ABCDE rule to help you remember what to look for:

A – Asymmetry: If you draw a line through the middle, the two sides will match, meaning it is symmetrical. If you draw a line through this mole, the two halves will not match, meaning it is asymmetrical, a warning sign for melanoma.
B – Border: The borders of an early melanoma tend to be uneven. The edges may be scalloped or notched.
C – Color: Having a variety of colors on a mole is another warning sign of melanoma. A number of different shades of brown, tan or black could appear. A melanoma may also become red, white or blue.
D – Diameter: Melanomas are usually larger in diameter than the eraser on your pencil tip, but they may sometimes be smaller when first detected.
E – Evolving: When a mole is evolving or changing, see a doctor. Any change — in size, shape, color, elevation or another trait, or any new symptom such as bleeding, itching or crusting — could be a sign of cancer.

Melanomas can develop anywhere on the skin, but they are more likely to start on the trunk (chest and back) in men and on the legs in women. The neck and face are other common sites, but melanoma can also develop on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and under the nails.

The following factors may raise your risk of developing melanoma:

  • Sun exposure and indoor tanning
  • Having many moles, being fair skinned and having a family history of melanoma
  • Previous skin cancer or another inherited condition
  • Race or ethnicity. Melanoma rates are 24 times higher in Caucasians than in African Americans. However, anyone can develop it.
  • Age. The median age at which people are diagnosed with melanoma is just about 50 years, but it can also occur in young adults.
  • Having a weakened or suppressed immune system

Protect yourself by wearing sunscreen, even during the winter months and on cloudy days. You should also:

  • Stay in the shade and wear protective clothing, including a hat and sunglasses
  • Avoid peak rays when the sun is the most intense
  • Don’t use tanning beds
  • Apply sunscreen regularly, especially if you are outside

Discover 5 steps to lower your risk of skin cancer.

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