Mikhail Gorbachev is easily identified in photographs by a distinctive large red mark on his head. The patch is actually a birthmark — a capillary naevus — which is present from birth. One in 10 children has birthmarks on his or her body.
These marks have fascinated people down the ages. In the 16th and 17th centuries, there developed a branch of astrology called moleoscopy. Specialists interpreted the “occult significance” of birthmarks and their “effect” on one’s character and destiny. The positions of the moles were linked with astrological signs. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, wrote a treatise on the link between birthmarks and health. He had the right idea. Health is a strong determinant of the future. We now know that the birthmarks are a coincidence.
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Birthmarks that are red in colour are called strawberry marks, angel kisses or stork bites. They are usually present on the eyelids, forehead or nape of the neck. They may be flat or appear slightly raised or bumpy. They are caused by an overgrowth of the small blood vessels (capillaries). They are not hereditary or cancerous and usually disappear without treatment by the age of two.
Gorbachev’s large red naevus is called a port wine stain. Such marks too are present at birth, but are much larger, do not cross the midline and unlike strawberry marks do not fade with age. Sometimes they may be associated with seizures and glaucoma in later life.
Dark slate grey or bluish marks can be present over the areas of the buttocks or back in 80 per cent of Indian babies. These are called “mongoloid spots” and to the untrained eye can be mistaken for bruises. They occur because melanocytes (pigment producing cells in the skin) get caught in the deeper layers of the skin during the development process. The marks may last till adolescence.
Café au lait spots are so called because they are a shade of brown that looks like milky coffee. They may be present at birth or appear in early childhood. If they are very large, or four or more are present, the child may be carrying the gene for neurofibromatosis. This is a condition where multiple painless bumps appear all over the face and body in adult life.
Birthmarks that are large (the size of a fist), black and sometimes hairy are called congenital naevi. They have to be watched carefully as 10 per cent can turn cancerous.
Older children may develop pigmented areas on the skin called moles. These are also called beauty marks. Marilyn Monroe and Madhubala had attractive facial moles. In the last century, moles were a fashion statement for both men and women.
A real mole is an area of skin where there is an increase in the number of melanocytes which then form a cluster. They can be flat or raised. Some may have hair growing in it. The number present increases with age and most adults have 20-40 moles. They also increase during times of hormonal change like adolescence and pregnancy. They can darken when exposed to sunlight. Some fade away with age.
Moles rarely can become cancerous. The danger signals are —
* If the mole suddenly appears after the age of 20 and seems to be increasing in size
* If the diameter is larger than the end of a pencil
* If it suddenly changes in colour
* If it itches, oozes or bleeds.
A dermatologist can remove a mole which shows any of these signs and send it for testing. Removal of a cancerous mole in the early stages is curative.
Not all pigmentations on the skin are moles. They may be “lentigenes” or brown spots that appear on the face and hands in older people, especially after exposure to sunlight. They resemble freckles. They are harmless and can be prevented by avoiding the sun.
Black spots may appear on the chest and back as people get older. They look like blobs of dirt stuck on the skin, but cannot be picked off. These are barnacles or seborrheic keratosis. The condition may run in families. They occur because keratin, a strong natural protein normally formed in the skin, increases and forms circular whorls. They are harmless and can be left alone. Some may be cosmetically disfiguring. Others may get caught in clothing and become irritated, red and start bleeding. These can be removed by a dermatologist.
The skin, especially in older overweight women, can form tags — small flaps of tissue that hang off the skin. These are not painful or dangerous. If they get snagged frequently on jewellery or clothing, they can be easily removed.