Discolored skin patches are irregular areas where there are changes in skin color. They are a common problem with a wide array of potential causes. Some of the more common causes for changes in skin color are illness, injury, and inflammatory problems.... Read more
Discolored skin patches are irregular areas where there are changes in skin color. They are a common problem with a wide array of potential causes.
Some of the more common causes for changes in skin color are illness, injury, and inflammatory problems. Discolored skin patches also commonly develop in a certain part of the body due to a difference in melanin levels. Melanin is the substance that provides color to the skin and protects it from the sun. When there is an overproduction of melanin in a given area, it can result in skin discoloration in that area.
What causes discolored skin patches?
There are many potential causes of discolored skin patches, ranging from minor problems to more serious medical conditions.
Sunburns and other types of burns can damage your skin, and when these burns heal, there may be scar tissue that isn’t skin-colored. Discolored skin patches can also develop when you apply sunscreen in an incomplete manner, leading to differently tanned parts of your skin. Certain medications can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it is more likely to turn red.
Various infections can cause localized changes in skin color. Cuts and scrapes may become infected when bacteria enter the wound, resulting in a skin infection. This causes changes in the texture of the skin and turns the surrounding skin red or white. Fungal infections, such as ringworm and tinea versicolor, can also trigger discolored skin patches on various parts of the body.
Autoimmune diseases and allergies
The immune system normally works to keep the body healthy by fighting off harmful invaders that cause infections and disease. In people with autoimmune diseases and allergies, however, the immune system confuses healthy cells for something foreign and attacks them by mistake. This triggers inflammation throughout the body, resulting in various symptoms, including swelling and redness.
Some autoimmune diseases, such as lupus erythematosus and Graves’ disease, may attack the skin and cause changes in skin color. These reactions can range from red rashes and blisters to skin lightening or darkening.
Allergic reactions to foods, plants, or irritants can also result in discolored skin patches in various areas of the body. These changes may present as rashes or raised bumps that itch or burn. One common allergy that can cause skin discoloration is eczema. Like certain autoimmune diseases, eczema triggers an immune reaction that attacks the skin. The condition can cause scaly patches and red bumps that ooze or crust over.
Hormonal changes, especially during pregnancy, can trigger changes in skin color. These changes often occur due to increased levels of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. Melasma, also known as the “mask of pregnancy,” is one skin condition that can develop due to these hormonal changes. This condition can cause dark patches to form on both sides of the face.
Birthmarks are discolored skin spots that can develop at birth or after birth. Some common types of birthmarks include:
- Moles, which are brown or black spots that can appear on the skin at birth. Most moles aren’t cause for concern. However, changes in the size or shape of these spots can signal trouble, and should be checked by your doctor.
- Mongolian spots, which are bluish patches that can appear on the backs of babies and young children, usually those of Asian descent. They are harmless and often fade over time.
- Port-wine stains, which are flat patches that appear pink or red. They are caused by swollen blood vessels under the skin.
Cancer can change the skin’s color or texture. Skin cancer may occur when the genetic material in skin cells becomes damaged, often from long-term sun damage or exposure to chemicals. The damage may cause the cells to grow out of control and form a mass of cancer cells. There are several types of skin cancer, all requiring treatment:
- Actinic keratosis is a precancerous skin condition characterized by scaly, crusty spots on the hands, arms, or face. These spots are typically brown, gray, or pink. The affected area may itch or burn.
- Basal cell carcinoma is a form of cancer that affects the top layer of skin. It produces painful bumps that bleed in the early stages. The associated bumps may be discolored, shiny, or scar-like.
- Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in the squamous cells. These cells make up the outermost layer of skin. The condition causes scaly, red patches and raised sores.
- Melanoma is the least common but most serious form of skin cancer. It begins as an atypical mole. Cancerous moles are often unsymmetrical, multicolored, and large. They usually first appear on the chest or back in men, and on the legs in women.
Most discolored skin patches aren’t caused by skin cancer. However, you should ask your doctor to examine any misshapen moles or other rapidly changing skin lesions.
How are discolored skin patches evaluated?
You should schedule an appointment with your doctor if:
- you have any lasting changes in your skin color
- you notice a new mole or growth on your skin
- an existing mole or growth has changed in size or appearance
Your doctor will perform a physical examination and inspect your discolored skin patches. They will also ask you a series of questions about your skin changes. Be prepared to discuss:
- when you first noticed the change in skin color
- whether the discoloration happened slowly or quickly
- whether the discoloration is changing or getting worse
- any other symptoms you may be experiencing along with discolored skin
Make sure to notify your doctor about any sunburns and other skin injuries. You should also tell your doctor if you are pregnant or taking any hormone treatments. These factors may play a role in your skin changes.
If your doctor suspects that an underlying condition is causing your discolored skin patches, they will order certain diagnostic tests to pinpoint the cause. These tests may include:
- blood tests to check for conditions that may cause changes in skin color
- Wood’s lamp examination to identify possible fungal or bacterial infections
- skin biopsy to examine a small sample of the affected skin under a microscope for the presence of abnormal cells
How are discolored skin patches treated?
Treatment for discolored skin patches depends on the underlying cause. If your doctor finds an underlying health condition, they will attempt to treat that particular condition first. The skin discoloration may be resolved with medical treatments or home remedies, or a combination of treatments.
- Laser therapy: Intense pulsed light devices and Q-switched lasers are commonly used to help lighten skin areas that have darkened.
- Topical creams: Topical hydroquinone or prescription retinol (vitamin A) cream may help decrease the appearance of dark skin patches.
- Chemical peels: Chemical peels containing salicylic acid and glycolic acid can be used to remove the outer, discolored layer of skin.
Talk to your doctor about your options so you can determine which treatment is best for you. Make sure to discuss the side effects, cost, and effectiveness of each treatment.
- Over-the-counter creams: Vitamin A or E creams can help reduce the appearance of skin discoloration and boost overall skin health.
- Lemon juice: Apply lemon juice twice per day to lighten skin areas that have darkened. This may reduce the appearance of discolored skin patches in six to eight weeks.
- Castor oil: Apply castor oil to discolored areas twice per day, or wear a bandage soaked in castor oil overnight. This can help smooth the skin and break down excess melanin.
- Vitamin C: Eat foods rich in vitamin C, an essential nutrient for skin health. Fruits high in vitamin C include cantaloupe, oranges, and pineapple.
- Drink tea: Drinking tea made from burdock, red clover, or milk thistle might reduce skin discoloration.
What is the outlook for someone with discolored skin patches?
Many skin changes are harmless. Some causes for discolored skin patches are fairly minor conditions that need only simple treatment. Other causes may be more severe and require ongoing treatment. Skin cancer is very serious, but it can be treated successfully when it is detected early. It is important to speak with your doctor if you notice rapid or bothersome changes in your skin.