This article, written by top Consultant Plastic Surgeon Mr Ash Mosahebi, provides a visual guide to common lumps and bumps, and what steps are taken to treat them.
If you find a lump or bump, it's natural to be concerned that it may be dangerous to your health or even cancerous.
Thankfully, the majority of lumps and bumps found on the skin are benign.
However, because there is always a chance (albeit a small one) that the lump could require treatment or assessment by a consultant, it is important that you make an appointment with your GP to have it checked out.
Here is a guide to some of the more common lumps and bumps that occur, and what they look like.
What could a lump be?
A lipoma is a type of fatty tissue tumour. It will be noticeable as a soft growth under your skin. Lipomas can grow anywhere on the body, but are most common in the following places:
Symptoms of lipoma are usually a painless and slow-growing soft mass. If the lipoma is pushing on surrounding areas and causing discomfort, or you are unhappy with how it looks, it can be removed. If the lipoma is small and near to the surface of your skin, it can be removed under local anaesthetic. This type of surgery is usually considered cosmetic surgery, so you may prefer to book with a plastic surgeon.
Haemangioma is a type of soft tissue tumour made up of blood vessels. They make up about 7% of all benign soft tissue tumours. Haemangiomas are often present from birth and are commonly recognised as birthmarks (also called strawberry birthmarks). However, they can also appear in adult and teenage life and can occur throughout the body in skin, muscle, bone and internal organs.
Haemangiomas most commonly appear on the surface of the skin or just below it. They are rarely cancerous and most don’t need to be treated medically. If you are unhappy with the appearance, you may choose to have them removed for cosmetic reasons.
A neurofibroma is a tumour of the nerve fibre. Sometimes neurofibromas can occur as a single lump, but often they are part of a syndrome called neurofibromatosis, which is a genetic condition; you’re born with it. There are two types of neurofibromatosis: type 1 (NF1) and type 2 (NF2), with NF1 being far more common. Neurofibromas can appear as small soft bumps on or just under the skin, or they cause enlargements of parts of the body.
Treatment will begin with identifying the root cause of the neurofibroma and ruling out a diagnosis of neurofibromatosis. If you have a single or few neurofibromas they can be removed with cosmetic surgery.
Non-tumor lumps and bumps
Finding a lump doesn’t always mean that you have a benign tumour or cancer. Often, a lump may be down to one of the following common conditions.
Abscesses of the skin are often very sore and tender in appearance (and feel!). You may notice a painful red bump appearing and what looks like pus forming under the skin. They can develop in different areas of the body, but are most common in areas where you have a lot of sweat glands, such the armpit or groin area. Abscesses are usually caused by a bacterial infection, but can be caused by conditions such as hidradenitis suppurativa.
Some abscesses will drain naturally and won’t need further treatment. If abscesses keep coming back your doctor may prescribe you a course of antibiotics to treat them. If the abscess doesn’t drain on its own you may need to have a small operation where the abscess is cut open and drained. Once all the pus has been drained the abscess will be cleaned. They are usually left open after surgery and packed with gauze to allow them to heal from the inside out and prevent a cavity forming.If the abscess has developed as a result of a skin cyst, the shell of the cyst will be carefully removed to ensure it doesn't fill up with pus again.
Ganglion cysts tend to develop near a joint or a tendon, so you may notice them on areas around your hand or wrist where the bones are close to the skin. These cysts look like a small fluid-filled sac or lump under the skin, and they can be firm or spongy to touch depending on their size.
Ganglion cysts are harmless, but they can sometimes be painful or restrict how well you can move your joint. Often they will clear up on their own, but if you have a ganglion cyst that’s causing you problems, there are treatments that can help.
Aspiration of the cyst. This is the act of draining fluid out of the cyst with a needle and syringe
Surgical removal. This involves cutting the cyst out during surgery, it’s more effective but only recommended when the cyst is causing serious problems.
Thyroid gland lumps
If you notice a swelling or lump on the front of your neck, this could be your thyroid gland. Lumps and bumps in this area are more common in women and as you age.
There are two main types of lumps and bumps associated with the thyroid:
Goitres - these will show up as a swelling in the front of the neck that moves when you swallow. Most are benign, but it’s estimated that 1 in 20 could be thyroid cancer.
Thyroid nodules - again, these are mostly benign and do not cause any symptoms. They show up as lumps in the front of the neck. In some people they can be painful or hurt when swallowing.
If you have a goitre or thyroid nodule and they aren’t causing you any problems you can watch it to see if the swelling will go down naturally. Otherwise you may benefit from radioiodine treatment or thyroid surgery.
When to do if you find a lump
If you do find a lump or bump, keep a close eye on it. You should visit your doctor if you become concerned about it. This is especially important if the lump:
is getting bigger quite quickly
is red, hot or appears to have pus inside
doesn’t go down in a couple of days
is getting slowly bigger over weeks
is painful and/or bleeding.
When you visit your doctor, the first aim is to identify the lump and its cause. Your doctor can then set out the best possible treatment plan, if needed.