Ask the doctor: I recently developed skin tags. Why is this and how can I prevent any more?

Skin changes should be checked by a GP though there’s often nothing to worry about. Photo: Getty Images

Jennifer Grant

Question: I have noticed a random skin tag (it’s under my arm on my armpit area) — is it anything to worry or care about? I also have a new mole on my face. What causes them and is there a way to prevent more from appearing?

Dr Grant replies: A skin tag (also known as an acrochordon) is an outgrowth of normal skin. Skin tags are benign, easy to identify as they tend to be skin coloured, pedunculated (on a narrow stalk) and easy to remove. The risk of developing a skin tag increases with age, and in patients with type 2 diabetes and/or obesity. Skin tags tend to occur at sites of friction such as the armpit, neck, under the breasts and in the groin region.

Treatment typically involves applying cryotherapy (liquid nitrogen) to the narrow stalk or removing it with a sterile surgical scissor. There is a small risk of bleeding, particularly with larger skin tags, and possible skin infection if the skin is not prepared prior to skin tag removal. Most GP practices will be happy to do this for you and send the lesion off to confirm the pathological diagnosis of acrochordon.

Seborrhoeic keratosis (SK) is another benign skin lesion common in patients over 30 years old, particularly if your parents or older siblings have a history of these benign skin lesions. An SK is a harmless waxy (often wart-like) lesion on the surface of the skin (they often look stuck on) and can be grey, yellow, skin-coloured, or light to dark brown. They are a common sign of skin ageing and occur in approximately 90pc of people over 60 years old. Occasionally, they occur in a ‘Christmas tree-like’ pattern on the back.

Sometimes new-pigmented lesions appear on the skin in patients over 30 years old, particularly in Celtic fair-skinned people, and it does not necessarily mean they are cancerous. In fact, it can be normal to develop a new naevus (mole) up until 40 years old. Thereafter, you need to be more suspicious of possible skin cancer. It is important to keep an eye on all moles, old or new, looking for changes over time. People who have over 50 pigmented lesions are best advised to attend a dermatologist for regular professional skin reviews.

The majority of sun damage to the skin is done in the first decade or two of life, especially when sun exposure was intense over short bursts such as a two to three-week holiday in a sunny climate. UVA sun rays can travel through windows in your car or home, and that’s one of the reasons why we should apply a cream with SPF50 every day, especially from March through to October in Ireland. Obviously, if you had episodes of severe sunburn/sunstroke or used tanning beds, then you have a higher risk of melanoma. Likewise, if you have a family or personal history of any type of skin cancer, then you are also at higher risk.

Anybody who has concerns about a change in an existing mole or new pigmented lesion should get it checked out by a GP as soon as possible. GPs can assess your overall risk of melanoma as well as other skin cancers. Melanoma can occur in sun-exposed and non-sun-exposed skin (eg the palm of your hands, soles of your feet or under your nails) and if caught early has a good chance of a cure with surgical excision alone.

Dr Jennifer Grant is a GP with Beacon HealthCheck