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Q. My skin has all kinds of small thingies on it like my father used to have. My doctor checks them out and says they are all harmless. But, what exactly are they?

As we age, most of us start sprouting an array of unwanted growths. Let's go over the common ones:

Liver spots — The official name for liver or age spots is “lentigines” from the Latin for “lentil.” These are flat, brown with rounded edges and are larger than freckles. They are not dangerous.

Keratoses — Seborrheic keratoses are brown or black raised spots or wart-like growths that appear to be stuck to the skin. They are harmless. Actinic keratoses are thick, warty, rough, reddish growths. They may be a precursor to skin cancer.

Cherry angiomas — These are small, bright-red raised bumps created by dilated blood vessels. They occur in more than 85 percent of seniors, usually on the trunk. These are also not dangerous.

Telangiectasia—These are dilated facial blood vessels.

Skin tags—These are bits of skin that project outward. They may be smooth or irregular, flesh colored or more deeply pigmented. They can either be raised above the surrounding skin or have a stalk so that the tag hangs from the skin. They are benign.

Now we get into the cancers of the skin.

Squamous cell carcinomas—These are in the outer layers of the skin. They are closely associated with aging. These are capable of spreading to other organs. They are small, firm, reddened nodules or flat growths. They may also be cone-shaped. Their surfaces may be scaly or crusted.

Basal cell carcinomas —These are the most common of the skin cancers. They develop in the basal layer below the surface of the skin. Basal cell carcinomas seldom spread to other parts of the body. They usually appear as small, shiny bumps or pinpoint, red bleeding areas on the head, face, nose, neck or chest.

Melanomas —The melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanomas can spread to other organs and can be fatal. They usually appear as dark brown or black mole-like growths with irregular borders and variable colors. They usually arise in a pre-existing mole or other pigmented lesion.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. About half of all Americans who live to 65 will have skin cancer. Although anyone can get skin cancer, the risk is greatest for people who have fair skin.

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer. All skin cancers can be cured if they are treated before they spread. The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change on the skin, especially a new growth or a sore that doesn’t heal.

Check your skin often. Look for changes in the size, shape, color, or feel of birthmarks, moles, and spots. And don’t be reluctant to go to a doctor whenever you see anything on your skin that you suspect might be a problem.

Dermatologists recommend that, if you are a fair-skinned senior, you should get a full-body skin exam once a year. This kind of check-up isn’t a bad idea for any senior.

Fred Cicetti

Fred Cicetti is a freelance writer who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. 

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