What are skin lesions?
Skin lesions are areas of your skin that are different from the skin around them. Skin lesions are common and may be the result of an injury or damage to your skin, like sunburn. They’re sometimes a sign of underlying conditions, like infections or autoimmune diseases. The majority of skin lesions are noncancerous and harmless (benign), but they can be a sign of something more serious.
What is the difference between a skin lesion and a skin sore?
Skin sores refer to a type of skin lesion, like ulcers. Commonly, the terms sore and lesion are used to refer to the same type of abnormal skin.
Is acne a skin lesion on my face?
Acne is a skin lesion. It can appear on your skin as a pimple, whitehead, blackhead, papule or cyst and can be cosmetically bothersome or even painful. Acne forms when bacteria, dead skin cells and oil create lesions that are usually on your face, chest and back. There are many different types of cleansers, creams, lotions and oral medications that can treat acne. Use products that won’t clog pores (non-comedogenic) or visit a provider for a personalized treatment plan.
What are benign skin lesions?
Skin lesions that are benign are noncancerous and often harmless. These lesions are abnormal growths on your skin. Most benign lesions don’t need treatment unless they’re bothering you or you don’t like how they look. Examples of benign skin lesions include:
What is a malignant skin lesion?
Skin lesions that are malignant are skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S.
Signs of skin cancer include:
- A wound that won’t heal.
- New growth on skin.
- Change in existing growth or mole.
Who do skin lesions affect?
Skin lesions affect everyone. Some lesions appear at birth (congenital) and pose no threat to your well-being (freckles, many types of moles). If you have allergies, you can get skin lesions if you come in contact with allergens that you’re sensitive to. If you have chronic conditions, like psoriasis, you’re likely to experience recurring skin lesions in your lifetime.
How do we classify skin lesions?
One way of dividing skin lesions is primary versus secondary. Primary lesions are changes in your skin that aren’t associated with other conditions and include:
- A flat mark on your skin of a different color than your skin tone (macule or patch).
- An elevated, pimple-like bump (papule or plaque).
- An elevated, solid bump (nodule).
- A blister filled with fluid or blood (vesicle or bulla).
- An elevated pimple filled with pus or white fluid (pustule).
- An elevated bump that extends below the skin’s surface that’s filled with thick, yellow fluid (keratin cyst).
Examples of primary skin lesions include acne, birthmarks, insect bites and sunburn.
Secondary lesions are changes in a primary lesion. This can happen because of itching, another direct injury or a skin lesion that shows up as part of a more complex, underlying condition. Secondary lesions include:
- Thin, wrinkled skin (atrophy).
- Dried fluid around a wound (crust).
- Deflated, wrinkled skin (erosion).
- Painful breaks in the skin (fissure).
- Flaky, peeling skin (scale).
- Pale or red raised skin tissue (scar).
- Open sore (ulcer).
Examples of secondary lesions include scabbing, cuts and scrapes due to itching or dry skin from psoriasis or allergies.
Where are skin lesions located?
Skin lesions appear anywhere on your body. The type of skin lesion varies by location. For example, acne and eczema are skin lesions that occur in a particular pattern.
How common are skin lesions?
Noncancerous (benign) skin lesions are very common (for example, sunburn or acne).
Cancerous skin lesions (skin cancer) are the most common type of cancer in the United States. 1 in 5 people will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, with an estimated 9,500 people diagnosed daily.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of skin lesions?
Symptoms of your skin lesion could vary depending on what type of lesion you have. General symptoms include:
- Abnormal growth on your skin.
- Color change on the affected area of your skin (red, brown, black, blue).
If you notice your skin lesion is increasing in size or shape, is causing you severe pain, is bleeding or leaking pus or won’t heal as you expected — or if you have other associated symptoms like fever, joint pain, swelling or anything concerning to you — visit your healthcare provider immediately.
What causes skin lesions?
Since there are a wide variety of skin lesions that exist, there are many possible causes, including:
- Being present at birth (moles, birthmarks).
- Viral infections (HIV, HPV).
- Bacterial infections (herpes, staphylococcus).
- Allergic reactions (bug bite, poison ivy).
- A side effect of a medication (chemotherapy).
- An injury (sunburn, wound).
- An underlying medical condition (poor circulation, autoimmune disease, cancer, liver or kidney disease).
Diagnosis and Tests
What are the characteristics of skin lesions?
Common characteristics that help diagnose a skin lesion include:
How are skin lesions diagnosed?
A healthcare provider diagnoses skin lesions by physically examining your skin. They will look at your skin with their eyes but may also use a magnifying glass or another tool to better see your skin. They’re looking specifically at the characteristics of the lesion, including size, shape and color. A medical provider will also want to know your medical history, including allergies, current medications, chronic diseases or health conditions, recent exposures and family history.
What tests will be done to diagnose skin lesions?
Often, skin lesions don’t require diagnostic tests to pinpoint the source of the lesion. If needed, some tests that may be done include:
- An allergy test.
- A blood test.
- A microbial swab.
- An imaging test (X-ray).
- A biopsy.
Management and Treatment
How are skin lesions treated?
Skin lesion treatment varies based on the type of lesion:
- Primary lesion: These are the vast majority. They can be treated with topical lotions, creams, ointments or medications that you take orally that target the specific type of lesion. They may require surgical removal.
- Secondary lesion as a side effect of a medical condition: Treatment for the underlying medical condition.
- Malignant lesion (skin cancer): Surgical removal and possibly other medications.
How do I get rid of skin lesions?
Benign skin lesions, like skin tags or cherry hemangiomas, may be removed if you don’t like how they look on your skin. Your provider will remove the lesion, possibly right in their office or with an outpatient procedure.
If you have skin cancer, your provider will talk about personalized treatment options for you.
How can I reduce my risk of skin lesions?
It’s not possible to prevent all benign skin conditions, but it helps if you:
- Use skincare products that won’t clog your pores.
- Be cautious during exercise or activity to prevent injury.
- Avoid allergens.
- Practice good hygiene.
To prevent malignant skin lesions, like skin cancer, you can:
- Wear sunscreen.
- Limit exposure to the sun.
- Avoid using tanning beds.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have skin lesions?
Benign skin lesions are no threat to your overall health and they’re really just something that makes your skin look different. Your provider may have treatment options for you or may be able to remove certain types of skin lesions if you don’t like how they look on your skin.
With skin cancer, early detection leads to a better outcome, and a possible cure, by removing it. Unfortunately, once melanoma spreads to your lymph nodes, it has a very poor survival rate — so if you see abnormal lesions on your skin, get them checked out.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
You should see your healthcare provider if your skin lesion:
- Causes pain or discomfort.
- Changes size, shape or color.
- Appears to be an open wound that won’t heal.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
- Is this skin cancer?
- Can you remove this skin lesion?
- Can my skin lesion be part of a more complex disease?
Frequently Asked Questions
What conditions have skin lesions as a symptom?
Many acute and chronic health conditions are associated with skin lesions. Those conditions include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Skin lesions are very common and vary in size, shape and location on your body. Carefully watching for changes in a skin lesion helps your healthcare provider offer treatment solutions that help you feel better and reduce the risk of long term complications or serious skin cancer.
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