Birthmarks are distinguishing marks that babies are either born with or develop shortly after birth.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What are birthmarks?

Birthmarks are very common. Around one baby in three is either born with or develops one soon afterwards. They affect twice as many girls as boys, vary widely, and may gradually disappear over a few years or stay with you for life, sometimes getting bigger.

Most of the time they’re harmless but occasionally they can signal a specific underlying health problem. They can also cause complications because of where they are, in which case they need to be removed.

You may also want yours removed for cosmetic reasons.

How to tell if you have birthmarks

They can appear anywhere, including inside your body. Although there are many different types of birthmarks that look very different from each other, there are two broad categories.

Vascular

These are abnormal blood vessels under your skin. If they’re pink, red or purple, they’re near the surface. If they’re blue, they’re deeper. Vascular birthmarks can appear anywhere on your body but tend to be more common around your head, face and neck. Common examples include:

  • Salmon patch (telangiectatic nevus) – Thin, flat, pink or red areas that are caused by expansion of the tiny blood vessels on the back of your neck (stork bites) or face (angel kisses)
  • Strawberry birthmark (infantile haemangioma) – Raised red marks on any part of your body that appear shortly after birth
  • Port wine stain (capillary malformation) – Distinctive flat, red or purple marks that can vary in size and are often on one side of your face, chest or back

Pigmented

These are clusters of cells that contain melanin, the skin pigment that makes you tan. They tend to be brown or black but can also be bluish or blue-grey, and may be smooth, flat, raised or wrinkled. These include:

  • Café au lait mark – A brown, flat, oval-shaped stain that’s present at birth or appears soon after and doesn’t fade
  • Congenital melanocytic naevus – A large, flat or raised mole that’s brown or black, may appear anywhere and varies widely in size
  • Mongolian spots – Bruise-like marks that are there from birth, often over the lower back and buttocks

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Diagnosis and tests for birthmarks

Usually your doctor can categorise a birthmark by its appearance. But you or your child may be referred to a dermatologist, a doctor who specialises in skin conditions, if:

  • A mole has recently grown, changed in appearance or is itching or bleeding
  • Your child’s birthmark is located in a position that may interfere with their vision, breathing or feeding
  • Your child has multiple birthmarks – this may indicate an underlying health condition

Causes of birthmarks

The exact cause of birthmarks isn’t well understood. Many of them are thought to be due to a change in a gene during the early part of pregnancy when a baby’s skin and blood vessels are forming.

Common treatments for birthmarks

Fortunately, most birthmarks don’t need treatment. This is only necessary if:

  • A birthmark on your face is likely to interfere with vision, breathing or feeding
  • A mole develops skin cancer or shows signs of increased risk
  • A haemangioma (strawberry birthmark) develops an ulcer or causes internal problems

You may also want a birthmark treated because you don’t like the look of it. Birthmark removal options include:

  • Laser therapy – Pulsing beams of light can lighten or remove port wine stains over several sessions
  • Beta-blockers – Used to help shrink haemangiomas
  • Corticosteroids – Anti-inflammatory tablets or injections can also help shrink haemangiomas
  • Surgery – Recommended for moles that may be a cancer risk or internal haemangiomas that are causing problems
  • Camouflage make-up – Available on prescription, it’s a special type of make-up that can cover birthmarks

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