The Royal College of Physicians and British Association of Dermatologists advised holidaymakers to look for changes to their skin on return from holiday, particularly the growth of new moles or changes to existing moles. Being alert can save lives, as these changes can be signs of skin cancer, and patients have a better chance of being treated successfully if melanomas are found early.

The organisations issued the advice on the launch of new guidelines to help physicians, GPs and other healthcare professionals spot the signs of melanoma and treat it quickly. The guidelines include pictures of moles to compare with those in real-life patients and stress that patients who report any changes in the shape, size or colour of a mole should be referred to a dermatologist promptly.

Professor Julia Newton-Bishop, Professor of Dermatology at St James's University Hospital in Leeds, who chaired the guideline development group, said:

" Melanoma continues to be more common in the UK, probably as a result of increased numbers of us taking sunny holidays. It can be very serious, but if caught early is curable. We hope that the guidelines published will help members of the healthcare system to recognise melanomas early. The public can also do a good deal to take control of their own health and we hope also that initiatives like this will also help to educate everyone about what to look for."

The majority of skin cancers (melanomas)[n1] occur in white-skinned people. The most common risk factors are pale sun-sensitive skin and increased numbers of moles (melanocytic naevi). It is more common in women and a fifth of cases affect young adults. In the UK melanomas are most likely to occur on the lower leg in women and the back in men.

Almost three per cent of newly diagnosed cancers each are melanomas. There are nearly 3,600 new cases of melanoma in men, and over 4,500 cases in women a year.1

How to recognise signs and symptoms

Few new or growing moles cause any symptoms, although some patients say that their mole itches or tingles. Some moles may also bleed if ulcerated, although normal moles can also itch and bleed. Doctors will be looking for moles that are:

larger than usual and getting bigger - most are 7 millimetres or more when diagnosed

- more than one colour; often three or more different colours (browns, reds, blacks or blue-blacks)

- odd shaped-moles with jagged or uneven edges

The most reliable way of diagnosing melanomas is to take a detailed clinical history and examine the patient carefully, comparing the moles with a previous photograph if possible. Any suspicious moles should be removed entirely.

1 Figures from Cancer Research UK website, accessed 5 September 2007: click here.

'The prevention, diagnosis, referral and management of melanoma of the skin' will be free to download from the RCP website: Click here and will also be available for £10 incl.UK p&p from the RCP Publications Department on 020 7925 1174 ext.358.

The prevention, diagnosis, referral and management of melanoma of the skin - full report