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Basal cell carcinoma: Signs and symptoms


What are the signs and symptoms of basal cell carcinoma?

Basal cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that can show up on the skin in many ways. Also known as BCC, this skin cancer tends to grow slowly and can be mistaken for a harmless pimple, scar, or sore.

Common signs and symptoms of basal cell carcinoma

This skin cancer often develops on the head or neck and looks like a shiny, raised, and round growth.

To help you spot BCC before it grows deep into your skin, dermatologists share these 7 warning signs that could be easily missed.

If you find any of the following signs on your skin, see a board-certified dermatologist.

7 warning signs of basal cell carcinoma that you could mistake as harmless

  1. Warning sign: A pink or reddish growth that dips in the center
    Can be mistaken for: A skin injury or acne scar

    A pink or reddish growth that dips in the center

    The BCC on this patient’s cheek could be mistaken for a minor skin injury.

  2. Warning sign: A growth or scaly patch of skin on or near the ear
    Can be mistaken for: Scaly, dry skin, minor injury, or scar

    A growth or scaly patch of skin on or near the ear

    BCC often develops on or near an ear, and this one (circled in purple) could be mistaken for a minor skin injury.

  3. Warning sign: A sore that doesn't heal (or heals and returns) and may bleed, ooze, or crust over
    Can be mistaken for: Sore or pimple

    A sore that doesn't heal, or heals and returns

    This patient mistook the BCC on his nose for a non-healing pimple.

  4. Warning sign: A scaly, slightly raised patch of irritated skin, which could be red, pink, or another color
    Can be mistaken for: Dry, irritated skin, especially if it's red or pink

    A scaly, slightly raised patch of irritated skin

    This BCC could be mistaken for a patch of dry, irritated skin.

  5. Warning sign: A round growth that may be pink, red, brown, black, tan, or the same color as your skin
    Can be mistaken for: A mole, wart, or other harmless growth.

    A round growth that may be same color as your skin

    Would you recognize this as a skin cancer, or would you dismiss it as a harmless growth on your face?

  6. Warning sign: A spot on the skin that feels a bit scaly
    Could be mistaken for: Age spot or freckle.

    A spot on the skin that feels a bit scaly or looks like an age spot

    This BCC could easily be mistaken for an age spot, which is why it’s so important to have a dermatologist examine your skin before you treat an age spot.

  7. Warning sign: A scar-like mark on your skin that may be white, yellow, or skin-colored and waxy. The affected skin may look shiny and the surrounding skin often feels tight.
    Could be mistaken for: A scar

    A scar-like mark on your skin that may be skin-colored or waxy

    Appearing on an elderly woman’s skin, this BCC could easily have been mistaken for a scar.

More pictures of basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

While the above pictures show you some common ways that BCC can appear on the skin, this skin cancer can show up in other ways, as the following pictures illustrate.

Scaly patch with a spot of normal-looking skin in the center

On the trunk, BCC may look like a scaly patch with a spot of normal-looking skin in the center and a slightly raised border, as shown here.

Basal cell carcinoma can be lighter in some areas and darker in others

While BCC tends to be one color, it can be lighter in some areas and darker in others, as shown here.

Basal cell carcinoma can be brown in color

Most BCCs are red or pink; however, this skin cancer can be brown, as shown here.

Basal cell carcinoma can look like a group of shiny bumps

BCC can look like a group of small, shiny bumps that feel smooth to the touch.

Basal cell carcinoma can look like a wart or a sore

The BCC on this patient’s lower eyelid looks like a wart* in one area and a sore** in another area.

If you see a spot or growth on your skin that looks like any of the above or one that is growing or changing in any way, see a board-certified dermatologist.

Where does BCC develop?

As the above pictures show, this skin cancer tends to develop on skin that has had lots of sun exposure, such as the face or ears. It’s also common on the bald scalp and hands. Other common areas for BCC include, the shoulders, back, arms, and legs.

While rare, BCC can also form on parts of the body that get little or no sun exposure, such as the genitals.

What color is BCC?

This skin cancer tends to be one color, but the color can vary from one BCC to the next. This cancer may be:

  • Red or pink (most common)

  • Brown, black, or show flecks of these colors

  • The same color as your skin

  • Yellowish

  • White

Does BCC hurt?

For many people, the only sign of this skin cancer is a slow-growing bump, sore-like growth, or rough-feeling patch on their skin. However, some people develop symptoms where they have this skin cancer.

Symptoms include:

  • Numbness

  • A pins-and-needles sensation

  • Extreme sensitivity

  • Itching

How do people find BCC on their skin?

Many people find it when they notice a spot, lump, or scaly patch on their skin that is growing or feels different from the rest of their skin. If you notice any spot on your skin that is growing, bleeding, or changing in any way, see a board-certified dermatologist. These doctors have the most training and experience in diagnosing skin cancer.

To find skin cancer early, dermatologists recommend that everyone check their own skin with a skin self-exam. This is especially important for people who have a higher risk of developing BCC. You’ll find out what can increase your risk of getting this skin cancer at, Basal cell carcinoma: Who gets and causes.


Images (in order of appearance) used with permission of:

  • The American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.

  • J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019;80:303-17.

  • DermNet NZ

  • The American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.

  • J Am Acad Dermatol. 2018;4:599-601.

  • J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019;80:303-17.

  • J Am Acad Dermatol. 2018;4:599-601.

  • The American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.

  • J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019;80:303-17.

  • The American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.

  • The American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.

  • J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019;80:303-17.

  • DermNet NZ

References
Cameron MC, Lee E, et al. “Basal cell carcinoma: Epidemiology; pathophysiology; clinical and histological subtypes; and disease associations.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2019;80:303-17.

Nouri K, Ballard CJ, et al. “Basal cell carcinoma.” In: Nouri K, et al. Skin Cancer. McGraw Hill Medical, China, 2008: 61-81.

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