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Categories > Skin and Scalp Care > Treating skin problems

Getting under your skin

Most women know that any unusual mass found in a breast warrants a trip to the doctor, but what about those odd lumps and bumps that occur elsewhere? Although the discovery of a new growth may send your mind to thoughts of cancer, that’s not the most likely diagnosis. Here’s what you should know about those mysterious lumps in your neck, wrists and other places.

On the back of your head

A small, freely moving lump under your scalp is probably a sebaceous cyst. These slow-growing and usually painless cysts arise from a swollen hair follicle and may also appear on the face, neck or trunk. They’re not dangerous and can usually be ignored. If a cyst becomes large or bothersome, your doctor may treat it with steroid injections or surgically remove it. If it becomes inflamed or tender or has drainage, see your doctor because it may be infected.

In your neck

Most thyroid nodules, solid or fluid-filled growths in the thyroid gland (located just below your Adam’s apple), are benign. However, some may disrupt your thyroid hormone levels, place pressure on your windpipe or make swallowing uncomfortable. About 5 percent of nodules are cancerous. Most nodules are found during a routine exam or an imaging test. Your doctor may conduct a thyroid function test, a biopsy or more imaging tests to decide whether treatment is needed.

A swollen lymph node may be the culprit if you find a lump along the side of your neck, under your jaw or chin, behind your ear or on the back of your head. Lymph nodes can swell when you have an infection, such as strep throat or an abscessed tooth. Sometimes the lymph node itself becomes infected and will become swollen, red, warm and tender. If you don’t have any infection or the swelling doesn’t go away when the other infection does, see your doctor. Swollen or infected lymph nodes can also occur in the armpits and groin.

On your wrist

A strange, painless bump on your wrist or hand may be ganglion cyst, a fluid-filled sac that grows out of the connective tissue between bone and muscle. Most are harmless and will disappear on their own. However, some may grow large, unsightly or become painful from pressure on the nerves. If a ganglion bothers you, your doctor can drain the fluid.

On the skin

The most common form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, may appear as a shiny, translucent or pearly nodule or a pink, slightly elevated growth on the skin. Such tumors are usually found on sun-exposed areas of the skin and tend to grow slowly. Although this cancer rarely spreads, see your doctor for prompt treatment.

A painful, red, half-inch lump that appears suddenly may be a boil, caused when bacteria infects a hair follicle. A boil will fill with pus and grow larger and more painful until it ruptures and drains. Boils occur on hair-bearing areas where you sweat or have friction. Most will resolve themselves (never squeeze or lance it) but see your doctor if one is large and painful or you have a fever.

Although most lumps and bumps don’t mean cancer, many will need medical attention. And the sooner you have them checked out, the sooner you can leave them behind.