Birthmarks: Treatment of Port-Wine Stains

Birthmarks, also known as nevi, are one of medicine’s great mysteries. Although the phenomenon has been around for centuries, medical science has been unable to pinpoint any true cause of birthmarks other than genetics. Even without an identifiable cause, however, the most important element to understand is how they can be treated. Most patients consider their port wine stain to be cosmetically undesirable birthmarks, but there are treatment methods available to reduce the appearance of the port wine stain.

Overview of Port Wine Stains

Port wine stain birthmarks are known to affect about 3% of all newborns. The characteristic of the port wine stain is a splotch-like, maroon-colored staining of the skin. This is vascular in nature and caused by dilation of the capillaries. This particular type of birthmark comes in different shapes and sizes and can be found on the face, neck, scalp and upper or lower extremities. The largest problem with port wine stains is that they grow larger as the child ages as the skin stretches from growth.

Health Concerns

In most cases, port wine stains do not present any direct medical risk. It is not uncommon for port wine stains to become scaly and dry, but this should be the extent complication with the birthmark. There have, however, been a few rare cases noted in which the stain appears to rise from the surface of the skin, indicating a secondary skin condition. It is also possible that untreated port wine stains located near the eyes can progress with growth to cause glaucoma.

Medically, the largest affect of port wine birthmark stains is psychological. Port wine stains can grow to become extremely large, sometimes covering a full half of the face. Children with these types of birthmarks are no different from any other child, but yet children often don’t understand why their appearance is different from that of their classmates. Unfortunately, this can result in the child being profusely picked on or teased for their unconventional appearance. The direct effect of this is low self-esteem and emotional impairment.

Methods of Treatment

Laser surgery is usually the first choice for correction of a port wine stain. This procedure works by using laser beams to destroy the underlying capillaries that cause the discoloration of the skin. In most cases, laser surgery can, depending on the severity of the birthmark, lighten the appearance of the port wine stain. It cannot, however, guarantee that the port wine stain will never recur.

Most patients that undergo laser surgery are required to have several treatments over the course of their lifetime in order to keep the appearance of the port wine stain in check. Although this treatment method is approved for children ages 6 months and older and can be done with local anesthesia, infants generally require anesthesia sedation for the procedure.

One thing to keep in mind with laser surgery is that there is the potential for scarring. Port wine stain laser surgery cannot be done in one session, but rather it takes several. If the laser treatment is required indefinitely, it is likely that the excessive laser exposure will cause some degree of scarring.

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