It’s scary to have changes on your skin, especially if you’ve had a history of cancer or know someone who has. Even if none of those things apply to you, it can be difficult not to wonder if the spot that wasn’t there yesterday could be a sign of something serious. But the truth is that most skin changes aren’t cancer and don’t need attention right away. With that said, it is important to keep track of your skin so you notice when things look different or feel new. Here are some common skin changes and how long you should wait before seeing a dermatologist:
Always see a doctor when you notice changes to your skin.
See a doctor if you notice any of these changes to your skin:
- A lump or growth that is new, growing, or changing in size.
- A mole or spot that looks different from others.
- Any change in the size, shape, color, or elevation of a mole.
Dry skin, itchy, scaly or cracked skin
You might be experiencing a common symptom of skin cancer—dry, itchy or scaly skin. It may be caused by an aging process that involves your skin cells becoming slower and less efficient at producing oil. Dryness can also result from genetics and environmental factors like poor circulation or exposure to harsh chemicals in the air.
If you're dealing with dry, flaky skin and are wondering whether it could be cancer-related, there are other things you should consider first. For example:
- Your medications may be exacerbating the problem. Certain drugs used to treat conditions including high blood pressure and depression can cause xerosis (an extreme form of dryness), particularly when combined with certain antiseizure medications such as Phenobarbital; this is because these drugs cause excess water loss through urination while also slowing down sebum production in the body's oil glands. If this seems like a possibility for you, talk with your doctor about switching to another medication that won't have such effects on your skin.* You may have an underlying medical condition causing the dryness.* Your diet might not be providing enough vitamins or minerals necessary for keeping it hydrated.* You may have an internal organ malfunctioning due to some other reason unrelated specifically to your skin but affecting its ability nonetheless."
Dark spots that don’t respond to treatment
If you have a dark spot on your skin that doesn't respond to treatment within a few weeks, it could be melanoma. The same goes if the dark spot gets larger, lighter or darker than before.
If the lesion is more than one color (think of black-and-white checkers), that's another sign of melanoma. Itching or pain is also a symptom that needs checking out by a dermatologist—it may indicate an infection or other disease.
A rash that doesn’t go away
A rash that doesn't go away is one of the most common skin changes, and it can be caused by many things. Your body might be having an allergic reaction to something you've been exposed to recently, or an infection like scabies. A rash might also indicate a more serious underlying condition such as lupus or rosacea.
The best way to tell if your rash isn’t cancer? See your dermatologist! She'll examine the area in question and let you know what she thinks is going on (and whether she thinks it's serious enough for further tests).
Sores that don’t heal
Sores that don’t heal are a sign of skin cancer. Don’t ignore them, because they can grow and spread if they go unnoticed. If you notice a sore on your body that won't go away, don't try to treat it yourself with over-the-counter creams or lotions or home remedies—instead, see a dermatologist for an exam.
Don’t apply pressure to the sore or try to pop it; these actions may cause more harm than good by increasing the risk of infection and spreading cancer cells from one part of your body to another (metastasis).
Don't scratch at sores until they bleed; this type of self-treatment is not recommended as it can make things worse by introducing bacteria into the wound and making matters worse in general.
Changes in the size, color or shape of moles
Moles are usually brown and round, but they can be flat or raised. Moles may also change in size, shape and color.
- Smooth moles are round (like a small circle), flat, smooth and soft.
- Rough moles have an irregular surface that looks like the top of a volcano's cone. This type of mole is more likely to become cancerous than other types of growths on your skin because it contains many more cell layers that can turn cancerous over time. A rough mole might be brownish in color but could also be pinkish or tan like an ordinary freckle would look under certain lighting conditions (such as artificial light).
Lumps or bumps on your skin
Lumps or bumps on your skin can be a sign of skin cancer, but they may also be harmless. Know what to look for and how to distinguish between the two.
Lumps and bumps that appear on your skin can often be harmless, but sometimes they're signs of serious health problems—including skin cancer. The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma (BCC), which accounts for more than 2 in 3 cases of all melanomas in the United States.* If you notice any changes in the appearance or coloration of moles on your body, see a dermatologist promptly for an evaluation and treatment plan.
Don’t let the fear of cancer keep you from getting help if something is wrong with your skin! Even if cancer isn’t an issue, you definitely don’t want to ignore problems that could get worse over time. After all, these are the only bodies we have—so let’s take care of them!