For the most part, birthmarks are blemishes on the skin that are noticeable at birth or shortly afterward. However, some types of birthmark — such as white forelock — affect the hair and may not become noticeable until a child is a few months old. Many babies have a birthmark, and they are not usually a cause for concern.

Very few birthmarks cause significant medical problems. Although some people request surgery to remove birthmarks, few of these procedures occur due to medical necessity.

In this article, we cover several types of birthmarks and their causes, as well as possible complications of a birthmark and treatments to reduce their risk of becoming harmful.

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A birthmark is a blemish on the skin that is visible from birth or shortly afterward.

Researchers do not yet fully understand why some babies have birthmarks and others do not.

That said, some have hypothesized that a buildup of cells that line the blood vessels of infants may cause strawberry marks to occur.

Some doctors believe that a tiny piece of placenta may become lodged inside the developing embryo very early on in the pregnancy.

If damage occurs to the nerves that control the widening or narrowing of capillaries, there is a chance of port-wine stains, especially if the capillaries permanently widen in one area.

Also, many experts believe that some proteins produced by the placenta during pregnancy may be linked to a higher chance of developing some types of birthmark.

The vast majority of birthmarks pose no long term health problems. Many of them eventually fade away.

That being said, some birthmarks, including strawberry marks, may turn into an open sore and develop an infection if they are in an area that is frequently irritated.

According to the Genetics Home Reference library, people with a giant congenital melanocytic nevus have a 5–10% chance of developing melanoma, which is an aggressive skin cancer.

Also, if a port-wine stain occurs around the eye, there is a higher risk of developing glaucoma.

A child with a strawberry mark on the eyelid requires prompt treatment, otherwise their risk of experiencing vision problems increases.

Likewise, a strawberry mark that interferes with breathing or feeding may be life threatening and requires rapid treatment.

Very rarely, port-wine stains can occur due to Sturge–Weber syndrome, a condition of the blood vessels that affects the eyes, brain, and skin.

Here, learn more about melanoma.

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Laser surgery is an option for treating a birthmark.

A significant number of birthmarks fade away without treatment.

However, if the birthmark causes health problems, or if a person feels strongly about getting rid of it, a doctor may recommend treatment.

Treatment can sometimes be painful, and it is not always effective. Unless a birthmark causes problems with sight, feeding, hearing, or breathing, caregivers should try to weigh the potential risks of treatment with the anticipated benefits for the child. Not all birthmarks are treatable.

A doctor can usually make a fairly accurate prediction of how a child's birthmark will progress. If they believe that a birthmark requires treatment, they may suggest one of the following options:

  • Propranolol: A doctor may prescribe this for an infant to take by mouth. It helps prevent the further development of hemangiomas by narrowing the existing blood vessels and preventing new ones from forming.
  • Corticosteroids: Doctors can inject corticosteroids into some types of birthmark, or an infant can take them orally. This can help shrink certain birthmarks or prevent any further growth.
  • Interferon alpha-12: If a corticosteroid does not have the desired effect, a doctor may suggest this medication instead.
  • Laser therapy: Doctors commonly use this type of therapy for port-wine stains and other birthmarks that are close to the skin's surface.
  • Surgery: If other therapies are not effective and the birthmark is causing a medical problem, a doctor may recommend surgery.

Treatment options depend on several factors, including the type, location, and severity of the birthmark.

However, the majority of birthmarks do not cause health problems and will fade over time.

Q:

Is birthmark removal covered by insurance if there is no medical risk?

A:

Health insurance does not typically cover birthmark removal for cosmetic reasons alone. There may be exceptions for certain large, prominent birthmarks in locations such as the face.

As many birthmarks change during childhood, often becoming smaller or lighter, waiting until adolescence or adulthood to decide on cosmetic treatment may be the best option.

Karen Gill, MD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.