If you have a mole, skin growth, skin lesion or dark spot that begins to itch, don’t panic — but do pay attention. Most moles are harmless, and itching could be the result of irritation from clothing, or even a new detergent. But any itchy mole, growth or wound could also be a symptom of skin cancer — either melanoma or, more likely, another form of skin cancer.
Which skin cancers itch?
Some melanomas itch. The “E” in the ABCDE rule of melanoma is for “Evolving,” which means that something about the mole changes. New itching or tenderness falls under “Evolving.” So does a change in the size, shape, color or elevation of the mole. A melanoma may also begin to bleed or crust over.
The other ABCDE warning signs of melanoma are:
- Asymmetry — most melanomas are asymmetrical
- Border — the border may be irregular, perhaps with scalloped or notched edges
- Color — instead of being uniform, the color may vary from one area to another, with shades of tan, brown or black; in later stages, red, white or blue may appear
- Diameter — melanomas may be smaller when they first appear, but if a mole is the size of a pencil eraser (about one-quarter inch in diameter) or larger, pay extra attention.
Melanomas tend to have at least one ABCDE trait and may have several. Melanoma can develop in an existing mole or appear as a new mole. It can occur anywhere on the body — not just where the sun shines.
While itching can be a sign of melanoma, it’s more often associated with two other common types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.
What is squamous cell carcinoma?
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second-most common type of skin cancer, after basal cell carcinoma. Squamous cells are flat cells near the surface of the skin.
Squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) most often appear in areas of the body frequently exposed to sunlight, including the lips, face and hands. They can take a variety of forms. For example, a SCC can be:
- A brown spot
- A scaly red patch
- An open sore (possibly with a raised border) that doesn’t fully heal
- A growth that resembles a wart
- A raised growth with a depression in the middle
- A dome-shaped growth
- A horn-shaped growth
Some SCCs may itch, bleed or crust over.
SCCs are typically easy to treat. Left untreated, however, they can grow into deeper layers of skin and even metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body. While much less deadly than melanoma, SCC kills more than 15,000 Americans each year.
What is basal cell carcinoma?
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. Basal cells line the deepest layer of the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin.
Like SCCs, basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) can take on many forms, including:
- A reddish patch or irritated area of skin, which may itch or hurt
- An open sore that doesn’t heal, or one that heals and later returns (these sores may bleed, ooze or crust over)
- A shiny, possibly translucent bump or nodule
- A small, pink growth
- A flat, waxy-looking white or yellow area that resembles a scar
- A scar or growth with slightly elevated, rolled edges and/or a depression in the middle
Basal cell carcinomas typically appear in areas that are exposed to the sun. Because they grow slowly, they are usually curable. However, if left untreated, they can grow deep into the skin and cause disfiguration.
What should I do if I notice a suspicious mole?
See a dermatologist promptly if you have a spot or sore that won’t stop itching, you notice a new mole or growth or you notice any changes in an existing mole, lesion, bump, scar or patch of skin. The dermatologist will examine your skin and may remove a small sample of skin tissue for biopsy.
How often should I have my skin checked by a doctor?
An annual skin screening from a board-certified dermatologist is important, especially if you have a large number of moles, other risk factors for skin cancer or live in a place where the sun shines year round (like Florida). Annual skin screenings may identify skin cancer early, when it’s more easily treated. If you have a history of melanoma, your dermatologist may want to see you more than once a year.
Between professional skin screenings, it’s a good idea to periodically check your skin for any new signs of skin cancer. The American Cancer Society shows you how to perform a skin self-exam.
Written By: Marianne Wait, an award-winning health and wellness writer based in New Jersey.
Medically Reviewed by: Ted Schiff, MD