Depending on your symptoms, it could be easy to mistake eczema for skin cancer ― or vice versa. The best way to know is to talk with your doctor.

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Every year, tens of millions of people in the United States live with the symptoms of a skin condition. In fact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), skin conditions affected 84.5 million Americans in 2016 alone.

Some skin conditions, like eczema and skin cancer, cause similar symptoms ― such as red, scaly, or itchy patches of skin. However, there are some differences in the signs and symptoms of these two conditions, even if they can appear similar at first.

Eczema is a chronic skin condition that causes dry, itchy, red, and inflamed patches of skin. “Eczema” is often used interchangeably with atopic dermatitis, but the term actually describes roughly eight different types of related skin conditions.

Many people think of skin cancer as an unexplained mole on the skin, but there are different types of skin cancer, each with different symptoms. Depending on the type of skin cancer, some of the symptoms can look like eczema.

All precancerous and cancerous skin lesions can present differently, including causing an itching sensation. Here are some of the symptoms of skin cancer that can appear similar to eczema symptoms:

But even though there are some similarities between eczema and skin cancer symptoms, there are also some differences:

  • Eczema lesions typically appear on multiple areas of the body at once, and these patches can be larger in size. Eczema lesions can also appear in areas with little sun exposure, like the armpits and groin, for example.
  • Skin cancer tends to isolate in one area of the skin and doesn’t usually appear in multiple areas at once. Skin cancer is also more likely to appear in areas of the skin that are frequently exposed to sunlight.

Another difference to consider between the two conditions is that eczema often develops early in life, usually before the age of 6 years. Skin cancer, on the other hand, tends to affect adults, with the overall risk increasing with age.

Several types of skin cancer have symptoms that look like eczema, including actinic keratosis (also called precancer), basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma.

Actinic keratosis

Actinic keratosis, or solar keratosis, is characterized by rough, scaly, or crusty skin lesions that develop after years of sun exposure.

Actinic keratoses usually appear in areas that are frequently exposed to the sun, like the scalp, face, shoulders, and neck. Because these lesions tend to be smaller in size, they can sometimes look like the symptoms of nummular eczema.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that affects the basal cells located in the outer layer of your skin.

With this type of skin cancer, the affected skin can appear red, discolored, brown, blue, black, crusty, or bloody, and may be itchy or painful, similar to eczema. Sometimes it can also appear as a sore that doesn’t heal, a shiny bump on the skin, or an elevated growth.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer affecting the squamous cells in the outermost layer of the skin.

Because this type of skin cancer often appears as scaly, red, discolored, crusty lesions and bumps on the skin, it tends to look the most similar to eczema. It can also cause the skin to itch intensely, which can cause even more redness and inflammation.

One of the only ways to rule out skin cancer is with a test called a skin biopsy. During a skin biopsy, your doctor will remove a tissue sample and send it off to a laboratory to check whether or not there are cancer cells present.

Both basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma are highly treatable with early detection. So, if you’re experiencing any of the warning signs of skin cancer, it’s important to schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.

Eczema is one of the most common skin conditions in children and adults, and it’s characterized by itchy, dry, irritated patches of skin. Some of the symptoms of eczema are similar to those found in certain types of skin cancer, especially basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma.

If you’ve noticed any new suspicious lumps, bumps, or patches on your skin, consider reaching out to your doctor to discuss your concerns. With proactive care, you can rule out any serious conditions ― or get treatment for them right away, if necessary.