Birthmarks

Coloured patches of skin that are present at birth or appear soon afterwards

  • Present at or shortly after birth
  • Genetics as a risk factor depends on the type
  • Gender and lifestyle are not significant factors

Many babies have patches of coloured skin, known as birthmarks, that may be present at birth or appear during the first weeks of life. Although they can be unsightly and distressing to the parents, most birthmarks are not harmful, and they rarely cause discomfort.

What are the types?

There are two types of birthmark: haemangiomas, which form from the small blood vessels just under the surface of the skin; and pigmented naevi, which form from densely pigmented skin cells.

Haemangiomas

This group of birthmarks includes stork marks, strawberry naevi, and port-wine stains.

Stork marks are very common birthmarks and can occur in up to half of babies at birth. A stork mark appears as a flat, pale pink patch, usually between the eyebrows or on the nape of the neck. This type of birthmark usually disappears by the age of 18 months.

Strawberry naevi are common birthmarks, occurring in about 1 in every 50 babies. The naevus appears as a small, flat, red spot at birth. The spot enlarges rapidly and becomes raised during the first year of life but usually disappears completely by the time the child reaches about 5 years of age.

Port-wine stains occur in about 1 in 3,000 babies, and they are usually permanent. The birthmark is visible as an irregularly shaped red patch and may be distressing, particularly if the mark is on the baby’s face. In rare cases, a port-wine stain on the face is associated with abnormal blood vessels in the brain that can cause epilepsy.

Strawberry naevus on the scalp

This red swelling, known as a strawberry naevus, is a common birthmark that usually disappears by the age of 5.

Pigmented naevi

This group of birthmarks includes Mongolian blue spots and moles. Mongolian blue spots are irregular, bluish areas on the skin. They are commonly seen at birth over the backs and buttocks of black and Asian babies and may be mistaken for bruises. The spots usually disappear by the time the child is 10 years of age.

A mole is a permanent, raised, dark-brown patch on the skin. The presence of a mole at birth is very unusual. Rarely, such birthmarks may become cancerous in later life.

What might be done?

Most birthmarks fade as the baby grows. However, a strawberry naevus on the eyelid is usually treated soon after birth before it can enlarge and affect vision. Corticosteroids may be given to shrink it, or it may be removed with laser treatment. Permanent birthmarks can also be treated with laser surgery, usually during infancy to minimize scarring. All moles should be checked for changes in size, shape, and colour. If moles cause concern, they can be removed by surgery. Treatment for permanent birthmarks usually provides good cosmetic results.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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