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The truth about birthmarks

There’s a whole history of lore around the origin of birthmarks. Some cultures link these marks to religious beliefs like angel kisses, while others think the position of a birthmark on the body could symbolise the potential for good luck, prosperity or intelligence in a child. Science has no concrete reason as to why these varied shapes and colours form on the body, yet, there is some insight as to their clear differences and what they mean for your health. The two main type of birthmarks are vascular birthmarks and pigmented birthmarks.

Vascular Birthmarks

Vascular birthmarks have a connection to problems with blood vessels either in or under the skin and in most cases, vascular birthmarks disappear by the time a child becomes a teenager. This type of birthmark can be broken down into two categories – haemangiomas and vascular malformations.

Haemangiomas or strawberry marks, are the most common type of birthmark and often appear as a raised pink, purple or red in colour mark on the skin. A haemangioma may not be present at birth. According to the HSE, a typical haemangioma grows rapidly for the first four or five months, then grows slowly for up to a year. Most eventually fade away, although some larger haemangiomas may leave the skin stretched or deformed. 

Two common vascular malformations are salmon patches and port wine stains. Salmon patches often disappear on their own a few months after birth and are believed to be non-cancerous. Port wine stains tend to be sensitive to hormones and may become more noticeable around puberty, pregnancy and the menopause. Most are permanent and may deepen in colour over time. Port wine stains often occur on one side of the face and about three in 1,000 newborn babies are affected by this type of birthmark.

Pigmented Birthmarks

Pigmented birthmarks are tan or brown in colour and most of them do not require any kind of treatment. Café-au-lait spots, Mongolian spots and congenital melanocytic naevi (CMN) are all pigmented birthmarks.

Café-au-lait spots are oval-shaped, coffee-coloured skin patches that usually appear at birth. Many children have one or two of these but if more than six have developed by the time the child is five, they may have a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis.

Mongolian spots are blue-grey or bruised-looking and present at birth. Commonly found over the lower back or buttocks, they typically measure a few centimetres in diameter, although they can be larger. They may persist for months or years but usually disappear by the age of four. They are completely harmless and do not need treatment.

CMN are relatively large brown or black moles, present at birth, caused by an overgrowth of pigment cells in the skin. Most CMN become proportionally smaller with time, although they may darken during puberty or become bumpy or hairy. The range in size for this birthmark is less than 1.5cm in diameter to more than 20cm. The risk of CMN developing into skin cancer is low, but this risk increases with the size of the CMN.

When to get help?

Although most birthmarks are benign, it’s recommended that they are checked by a medical professional to be sure. In most cases, doctors can make a diagnosis of birthmarks based on the appearance of the skin or if a mole exhibits potentially cancerous changes, a biopsy may be performed.

If you have any concerns or you notice any of the below changes to a birthmark, please visit your doctor immediately to receive a medical opinion.

  • bleeding
  • colour change
  • inflammation
  • itching
  • open sore
  • pain
  • size change
  • texture change

For further information on vascular birthmarks and how to treat them click here.

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