Moles are brown or black and can appear anywhere on the skin. Most develop in early childhood and through early adulthood. A person can have up to 40 moles by the time they are an adult.
Moles can change, but the change is very slow. They can alter color, become raised, or grow hairs. In some cases moles never change, while others slowly disappear. All these behaviors are considered normal if they happen gradually and over many years.
Fast facts on moles:
- Moles are formed of cells called melanocytes, which also give skin its color.
- Moles are common, and one that itches is not necessarily a sign of skin cancer.
- A dermatologist should check any new moles that appear in adulthood.
What causes itchy moles?
Most moles are not cancerous. The ones that are cancerous will look quite different from others on the body, including those present before young adulthood.
Any number of causes can contribute to itchy moles.
Itchy moles could be related to using new products, such as clothes detergents, lotions or soaps. Or an itchy, irritated mole could be the result of a work chemical that has touched the skin.
A doctor should still be asked to check an itchy mole even if someone knows the cause. Although rare, an itchy mole can be a sign of skin cancer.
Normal moles vs. abnormal moles
Normal moles are usually small, round spots on the skin that are colored brown or black. They are either elevated or flat, appear proportionate, and are the same all over.
A mole could be considered abnormal if the color and spots are not uniform, or if it has recently changed its appearance. For example, a doctor should be asked to check a mole if it was flat and has suddenly become raised.
Other characteristics of abnormal moles include:
- borders or edges that are uneven
- more than one color or shape
- a size larger than a pencil eraser
- any change from how it used to be
Not all abnormal moles or itchy moles mean cancer, but anyone with a mole that itches, oozes, bleeds, or has changed from normal to abnormal, should have it checked out by a dermatologist.
According to the American Cancer Society, there will be 91,270 new cases of melanoma in 2018 in the United States.
Melanoma is one of the most common skin cancers in Caucasians, and the lifetime risk is 1 in 38 for those populations.
Other races, including African-Americans, can be affected, but the risk is lower for this population.
Melanoma risk increases with age, with 63 years of age being the average for diagnosis.
But anyone, irrespective of how old they are, can be diagnosed with this type of skin cancer.
Melanoma is one of the most serious skin cancers, so it is essential to be aware of the signs and symptoms.
A changed mole is the first sign that something might be wrong. Melanoma can also show up in the development of new moles.
Mole changes can be related to size, shape, color, or texture. Melanomas are also known for black and black-blue areas within moles and other skin growths.
Additional skin symptoms include:
- sores that will not heal
- color change, redness, or swelling spreading to the nearby skin
- itchiness, tenderness, or pain in the mole or the surrounding skin.
Melanoma can also occur in the eyes and cause blurry vision, dark spots in the iris, or loss of sight. The iris of the eye is the thin, round structure that controls the size and span of the pupil, and the amount of light getting to the retina. The iris is also responsible for eye color.
Other kinds of skin cancer that cause itching
Non-melanoma skin cancers can cause multiple, unusual skin lesions that might be itchy and painful.
Some may resemble moles, but these tend to be new skin growths. Some growths may even look like sores or warts.
In 2014, researchers from Temple University Health System found that up to 37 percent of skin cancer lesions caused itching and around 28 percent involved pain.
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, two types of non-melanoma skin cancers, cause itching more often than melanoma.
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma or BCC is one of the most common types of skin cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. It is also the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer in the U.S.
A BCC grows in places that get a lot of sun exposure, such as the face and neck. If caught early enough, it can be cured.
Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma or SCC is the second most common type of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
SCC is the result of abnormal cell growth, arising from the squamous cells or cells that cover most the skin’s upper layers.
SCC appears as scaly red patches, elevated patches, and open sores on a person’s skin.
When found early, SCC is curable. If left untreated, however, it can invade the deeper layers of skin.
SCC can also spread or metastasize to nearby lymph nodes, distant tissues, and organs and may become fatal. Fortunately, incidences of SCC metastasizing are rare.
Anyone who notices changes to color, size, or shape of moles, should have them checked. Evaluations of moles that bleed, itch, are tender, or painful should not be put off doing the same.
Most moles cause no symptoms and do not need treatment. But moles that are itchy, painful, large or suspicious for cancers, should be removed.
There are two ways to remove moles, and both methods are considered safe.
The two ways suspicious moles can be removed are:
- Surgical excision: This involves numbing the affected area, removing the mole and closing the skin with stitches. The mole is then examined under a microscope to check for abnormalities or cancer cells.
- Surgical shave: This procedure is done if moles are small. The area is numbed, and a small blade is used to remove the elevated part of the mole. Stitches are not needed for shaving. Again, the sample of tissue is examined to look for cancer and other irregularities.
The American Academy of Dermatology advises against mole removal at home, as any cancerous cells can stay on the skin and spread. It could result in scarring or infection.