Can Birthmarks Be Harmful?
Stork bites, port-wine stains, angel’s kisses—these skin abnormalities known as vascular birthmarks, which appear during the first weeks of life but can leave a lasting impression, are more common than you may think.  For instance, did you know that more than one in 10 babies is born with a vascular birthmark?  While most vascular birthmarks are small and harmless, some are much more pronounced—covering 50 percent or more of the body—and require medical attention.

So why do vascular birthmarks occur?  Nobody really knows.  Most vascular birthmarks are not inherited, nor are they caused by anything that happens to the mother during pregnancy. Even more perplexing, some vascular birthmarks disappear in a couple of years while others last into adulthood.

The Skinny on Vascular Birthmarks
There are several varieties of vascular birthmarks, but the most common are macular stains, hemangiomas and port-wine stains. Here’s how to tell the difference:

  • >Macular Stains: The most common type of vascular birthmarks, macular stains go by many names. For example, they are called “angel’s kisses” when they are located on the forehead or eyelids; they are known as “stork bites” when they are found on the back of the neck. Pink and flat, macular stains can also occur on the tip of the nose, upper lip or any other body location. Angel’s kisses almost always vanish by age 2, but stork bites often last into adulthood. Most important, these birthmarks are harmless and require no treatment.

  • >Hemangiomas: These marks do not usually appear immediately after birth, but become visible within the first weeks of life. Hemangiomas are usually divided into two types: strawberry hemangiomas and cavernous hemangiomas. A strawberry hemangioma is slightly raised and bright red because the abnormal blood vessels are very close to the surface of the skin. A cavernous hemangioma, on the other hand, is blue in color because the abnormal blood vessels are deeper under the skin.

    Hemangiomas usually appear during the first six weeks of life and grow for about a year. Most never exceed two or three inches in diameter, though some can grow larger. Hemangiomas, more prevalent in females and premature babies, begin to turn white after a year and stop growing. Best of all, nine out of 10 will go away completely before the teenage years, leaving behind only a faint mark.

  • Port-Wine Stains: Along with posing potential health complications, these large vascular birthmarks, which occur in 3 in 1,000 infants, can ruin a person’s self-confidence. Appearing at birth, port-wine stains are flat, pink, red or purplish discolorations found most often on the face, neck, arms or legs. They can be any size and, unlike hemangiomas, grow as the child grows. Port-wine stains may become thicker over time and develop small bumps or ridges.

    Port-wine stains do not go away by themselves and last a lifetime. What’s more, port-wine stains on the forehead, eyelids or face can put increased pressure on the eyes. If left untreated, this can lead to loss of vision or, in extreme cases, blindness. Fueling this problem is the fact that port-wine stains, despite advances in medical technology, are exceptionally difficult to remove.

    The most successful method to date is a series of laser treatments, which recently won the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For best results, the American Academy of Dermatology says that treatment should begin as early as possible, even in infancy. But parents should keep their expectations realistic, says the Academy, as only one in four patients will be completely free of port-wine stains.

  • Helping Kids with Skin Abnormalities
    Kids can be cruel, especially to someone who doesn’t look like them. Children with visible skin conditions know the horror of this all too well, and many of them have developed low self-esteem as a result. The authors of the new book “Celebrate Me!” understand this and hope their story helps children better understand and accept skin abnormalities.

    The book may be ordered, at no charge, through NeoStrata Company Inc., a dermatological-products company, at (800) 225-9411.    

    Additional Resources
    To learn more about vascular birthmarks and other common skin abnormalities, visit these associations’ Web site.

    Kathy Sena contributed to this article.