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An Guide To Port-wine Stains

Any significant discoloration of the skin such as a birthmark can prompt a variety of emotions, from simple embarrassment to concern over medical implications. If you've always had a reddish or purple discoloration known as a port-wine stain, you may have found yourself swinging between these extremes while wondering how you might be able to rid yourself of that irregular feature. Here is an introduction to port-wine stains that can help you understand these phenomena and respond to them accordingly.

What Is a Port-wine Stain?

The medical term for a port-wine stain is nevus flammeus. These splotches of red or purple, which are caused by a genetic mutation, get their name from the fact they look as if someone has spilled wine on the skin. A port-wine stain is present from birth and may occur on the head, face, neck or limbs. While they don't cause discomfort, they can go from feeling like nothing at all to having a lumpy or gritty texture as the years go by. They can also cause understandable embarrassment in younger sufferers, especially if the splotch is in a highly visible area and/or gets darker throughout childhood.

A typical port-wine stain presents more of a cosmetic frustration than a health concern. If the skin supporting the port-wine stain gets dry (as it is known to do), you may experience itching or other discomfort. Port-wine stains on the eyelids have occasionally been associated with an increased risk for glaucoma, a disease in which abnormal pressure on the optic nerves causes permanent vision loss.

Is It a Port-wine Stain — or Something Else?

All skin discolorations are not created equal. A red or purple discoloration may stem from some other kind of condition, including:

  1. Hemangioma — A hemangioma is a mass of small blood vessels that collect to form a discolored, raised area on the skin. Hemangiomas made up of tiny capillaries tend to look red, while hemangiomas consisting of larger blood vessels may appear purple or blue. A hemangioma isn't usually a permanent feature; instead, it grows during childhood and then gradually disappears.
  2. Salmon patch — A salmon patch gets its name from its relatively light, pinkish color. This type of birthmark is also called an "angel's kiss" or (if it appears on the neck) a "stork bite." A salmon patch may remain on the skin permanently, or it may fade over time. In either case, it poses no danger to your health.
  3. Actinic keratosis — An actinic keratosis is not a birthmark; it's a skin lesion that usually develops later in life. you may notice small pink or brown area that feels slightly raised and rough. While an actinic keratosis poses no immediate danger, some cases can evolve into skin cancer.

What Do You Do About a Port-wine Stain?

If your dermatologist has confirmed that you have a port-wine stain, you may be hoping to find some way of lightening or even removing this feature. Doctors have used everything from freezing to radiation in an effort to remove port-wine stains, with varying success. The safest and most effective procedure involves exposing the stain to laser energy. These treatments can prove uncomfortable and produce a few days of bruising and swelling. After these side effects wear off, however (which generally takes about a week), patients are often delighted to see that their port-wine stains have become much lighter, even to the point of disappearing. Covering the birthmark with makeup offers an even easier and less invasive cosmetic strategy.

The simplest response, of course, is no response at all. As long as your port-wine stain isn't causing you undue self-consciousness, discomfort, or complications, you may decide to embrace it as part of your unique look. Even so, your dermatologist may advise you to use a moisturizer to keep the skin from getting overly dry.

Understanding your port-wine stain can help you learn how to live with it, from considering your cosmetic options to keeping your skin healthy and comfortable. If you have worries at all about a birthmark or other skin discoloration, talk to your local dermatologist and put your mind at ease.