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Most adults have multiple tens of moles on their bodies. What do normal moles look like, what should you watch out for, and when is it time to see your doctor?

We've all got moles. They can be present at birth or develop later on, can be tan, pink, or brown, and can appear all over the body in various shapes and sizes. Most moles are completely normal. So how do you know if your mole is something to be worried about? What does melanoma look like? When should you see your doctor about a mole?

Common Moles

Common moles develop when pigment cells — melanocytes — grow very closely together in clusters. The Latin name for a common mole is nevus, or nevi for plural. Common moles may be present at birth, but they usually develop later in in childhood and adulthood.

Adults usually have anywhere from 10 to 40 moles on their bodies, particularly on the upper body in places that are frequently exposed to the sun.

The following are characteristics of common moles:

  • They usually have a diameter of less than 5 mm
  • Their shape is round or oval
  • Common moles have clear edges 
  • They may be slightly raised
  • Tan, pink, and brown are the usual colors — the darker a person's skin tone, the darker their moles are likely to be

Common moles can appear during childhood or adulthood, and noticing a new mole is not necessarily a reason to panic. It is, however, a good idea to inspect your body for new moles regularly and to keep an eye on your existing moles. Ask your partner or a friend to check in places you cannot see yourself, such as on your back. 

When To See Your Doctor About A Mole

Common moles can turn into melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, but this happens only very rarely. People who have a very large number of moles (over 50) do have a higher risk of developing melanoma, and they should keep an extra careful eye on their moles. 

See your doctor if any moles you have change color, shape, or texture. Moles that evenly get bigger are usually not a reason for worry, and this commonly happens in children. When a mole grows bigger or becomes smaller (yes, that can happen too) unevenly, that is a reason to get it checked out. Moles should also been seen by a doctor if the skin on their surface is dry or scaly, or starts to itch, bleed or ooze other fluids. If your mole becomes hard or has a lumpy appearance, it is also time to make an appointment with your doctor. 

Most of the moles that meet these criteria are still not going to be melanoma. Remember who a common mole is called "nevus" in Latin? Well, moles that have a different appearance are most often characterized as a dysplastic nevi. This basically means an atypical or abnormal mole. 

Dysplastic nevi tend to be bigger (larger than 5mm), have a more unusual appearance, and may not have clear borders like common moles. They may be made up of several different colors, and tend to appear in areas that aren't exposed to the sun (very frequently), like below the waist or on the scalp.

Dysplastic nevi can turn into melanoma, but once again that's not something that happens often. They do come with a higher risk of melanoma than common moles, which is reason enough to follow them more closely. People who have five or more atypical moles are said to have 10 times the risk of developing melanoma than those who don't have any.

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