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When to worry about a mole?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

We have all grown more aware of the dangers of sun exposure in recent years, with the threat of sun damage altering our appearance and the risk of skin cancer. There are different types of skin cancer, but there are some rules of thumb to follow for any mole, whether it’s new or existing. Let's take you through when to be concerned.

What signs shall I look out for?

There’s a simple ABCD approach to any new or existing mole. Ask yourself:

  • A) is there Asymmetry, where one half looks different than the other?
  • B) is the Border irregular or blurred?
  • C) is there more than one Color, or a blue/black tinge?
  • D) is the Diameter 1/4 inch or more?

You might have other symptoms alongside these changes, like itching or bleeding.

It’s not common to have a mole on the palm of your hand or the sole of your foot, so get any new brown marks checked out. Similarly, melanoma can affect the nailbed – if you have a brown mark on the base of your nail that’s not going away, or you can’t remember any injury or accident, it’s worth getting this checked.

Are some people at more risk than others?

Melanoma, a common and serious type of skin cancer, develops after exposure to the sun. While anyone can get it, certain factors increase your risk. This includes if you have pale skin and freckles, blue eyes and red or blonde hair, lots of moles, or skin that burns easily and rarely tans. You're at higher risk if a close family member (parent, child, or sibling) has had melanoma.

Spending significant amounts of time in the sun - either working outdoors, living in hot climates, or sunbathing - puts you at higher risk, along with extensive use of tanning beds. Melanoma can occur anywhere, but more commonly in areas exposed to the sun - men usually get them on their backs and women on their legs.

Everyone should wear sunscreen with broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection, with an SPF of 30 or higher, and it should be reapplied regularly. UVA rays are present from dawn until dusk, and all year round, UVB rays give you sunburn and are strongest in the summer between 11 am and 3 pm – both can cause damage to skin cells that can lead to cancer. Along with sunscreen, it's safe to avoid the sun where possible and wear clothes and hats to cover up.

What if it doesn’t look like a mole?

Skin cancers other than melanoma are common and often on sun-exposed areas of the face, ears, and upper back. If you have any pink marks or lumps, or any crusted or wet lesions that persist for weeks or months, this is worth getting checked by your doctor. Other skin cancers include basal cell carcinoma (BCC) or squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

When should I see my doctor?

Book an urgent appointment with your doctor if it's a "yes" to any of the ABCD warning signs above. They will ask about your mole or lump, examine your skin, and they will refer you urgently to a dermatologist if they think skin cancer is a possibility.

If you don't have specific concerns about any particular mole but you would feel reassured to have a once-over, you can book an appointment with a dermatologist or a skin mapping service.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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