Most birthmarks are harmless and easy to ignore. But if your baby is born with a port wine stain, you may want to take quick action.
Port wine stains are red or purple patches that usually show up on the face, neck, arms, or legs. (The red mark on Mikhail Gorbachevs forehead is the most famous example.) Caused by dilated capillaries near the skins surface, they can vary greatly in size. Some stains cover a large area of skin. They won't change shape over time, but they can grow darker and more noticeable.
In rare cases, port wine stains can be painful. They can also become swollen and prone to infection. But most often, the biggest problem is their appearance. A stain can make a child or adult very uneasy about his or her appearance, especially if it shows up on the face.
Fortunately, there is a treatment for port wine stains. A pulsed-dye laser can lighten the stain and help it fade into the background. According to a recent report from the University of Michigan, later treatment reduces the appearance of the stain about 80 percent of the time. About 20 percent of stains disappear entirely with the treatment. The laser causes a small bruise at first, but it only lasts for a couple of days. Doctors use anesthesia to make the procedure close to pain-free.
These days, port wine stains are often treated in infancy, but the laser treatment works well for older children and adults, too. Laser treatment may need to be repeated in later years if the mark starts to darken again. A recent study of about 100 patients in England found that the marks re-appeared 16 percent of the time within about 5 years. In some cases, the marks showed up again in just one-and-a-half years.
Cleveland Clinic. Birthmarks. 2010. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/birthmark/hic_birthmarks.aspx
Mayo Clinic. Slide show: Birthmarks. October 2009. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/birthmarks/SN00033
Nemours Foundation. Birthmarks. October 2009. http://kidshealth.org/PageManager.jsp?dn=KidsHealth&lic=1&ps=107&cat_id=189&article_set=35902
University of Michigan. Port wine stains an easy fix. September 2009. http://www2.med.umich.edu/prmc/media/newsroom/details.cfm?ID=1310
Soueid A and Waters R. Port Wine Stain Recurrence After Laser Treatment. Ann Plast Surg 2006 Sep; 57:260-3. http://dermatology.jwatch.org/cgi/content/full/2006/922/1