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Skin cancer types: Squamous cell carcinoma symptoms

What are the signs and symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma on the skin?

When this cancer develops on the skin, it's often called squamous cell skin cancer. It can show up in many ways. You may see any of the following on your skin:

  • Rough, reddish scaly area

  • Open sore (often with a raised border)

  • Brown spot that looks like an age spot

  • Firm, dome-shaped growth

  • Wart-like growth

  • Tiny, rhinoceros-shaped horn growing from your skin

  • Sore developing in an old scar

No matter what it looks like, this skin cancer often appears on skin that’s gotten lots of sun, such as the face, lips, bald scalp, ears, or hands. It tends to develop on skin that’s been badly damaged by the sun or indoor tanning. Signs that your skin has been damaged include age spots, discolored skin, loss of firmness, and deep wrinkles.

Pictures of squamous cell carcinoma on the skin

The following pictures show many of the ways that this cancer can appear on the skin.

Rough-feeling area

This is an early sign of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) on the skin. On lighter skin tones, this area tends to have a reddish color. People who have darker skin tones may see a red, violet, purple, grayish, or dark brown patch.

Reddish area is squamous cell skin cancer

Round growth with raised borders

Squamous cell skin cancer often develops on the head or neck because these areas tend to get the most sun exposure. In this picture, you see squamous cell skin cancer on the ear.

Round growth on ear is squamous cell skin cancer

A sore that won't heal or heals and returns

On the skin or lips, squamous cell carcinoma can look like a sore.

Reddish growth that looks like a sore is squamous cell skin cancer

Age spot

This can be a sign of squamous cell carcinoma, which is why you want a board-certified dermatologist to examine your skin before you treat any age spot.

Brown circle that looks like an age spot is squamous cell skin cancer

Raised, round growth

This is a common sign of squamous cell carcinoma of the skin.

Raised red growth is squamous cell skin cancer

Animal's horn

When squamous cell carcinoma looks like this, it tends to grow quickly.

Squamous cell skin cancer can look like an animal’s horn

This skin cancer can affect more than your skin

This common skin cancer can also develop inside the mouth, on the genitals, inside the anus, or in the tissue beneath a fingernail or toenail.

Here's what squamous cell skin cancer can look like in these areas:

  • Inside the mouth: Sore or smooth, reddish-white patch

  • Genitals, anus: Raised, reddish area or wart-like sore

  • Nails: Wart-like sore or a red, brown, or black line beneath a nail

The following pictures show what this skin cancer can look like in some of these areas.

Sore inside your mouth

This squamous cell carcinoma started inside the mouth and grew to cover a larger area.

Large sore inside the mouth and on the lower lip is squamous cell skin cancer

Dark streak beneath a nail

Squamous cell carcinoma can look like a red, brown, or black line beneath a nail, as shown here.

When it develops around the nail, it can look like a wart that just won’t go away. If you’ve had a wart around a fingernail (or toenail) for years, it’s time for a dermatologist to examine it.

Brown streak beneath this fingernail is squamous cell skin cancer

Disappearing nail

A nail can disappear for many reasons, including an HPV infection, which can cause squamous cell carcinoma.

Squamous cell skin cancer has eaten part of the fingernail

What color is squamous cell skin cancer?

This skin cancer tends to be one color, but the color can vary from one squamous cell skin cancer to the next – and even within a cancer.

The color may be:

  • Red or pink (most common)

  • Violet, purple, or grayish

  • Brown, black, or show flecks of these colors

  • Yellowish

  • White (inside the mouth)

If the spot is covered with scale, you may see white on top and red, pink, or another color beneath.

Does squamous cell skin cancer hurt?

Many times, early skin cancer has no symptoms. Some people notice only a change to their skin, such as a sore that won’t heal or heals and returns.

This skin cancer can also cause symptoms, such as:

  • Itching

  • Feeling sore or tender where you have the squamous cell skin cancer

  • Numbness or a pins-and-needles sensation

Any sore, wart, or growth that isn’t healing or heals and then returns should be examined by a board-certified dermatologist.

How do people find squamous cell cancer on their skin?

Many people find it when they notice a spot, round bump, or scaly area on their skin that is growing or feels different from the rest of their skin.

If you notice such a 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.

You’ll find out what can increase your risk of getting this skin cancer at, Squamous cell carcinoma: Who gets and causes.

Used with permission of:

  • Images 1, 5, 8, 10: The American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides

  • Image 3: J Am Acad Dermatol. 2011;65(5):e152-54.

  • Image 4: J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006;55(5):741-60

  • Images 2, 6, 7: DermNet NZ

  • Image 9: J Am Acad Dermatol 2013;69:253-61.

Anadolu-Brasie R, Patel AR, et al., “Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin.” In: Nouri K, et al. Skin Cancer. McGraw Hill Medical, China, 2008: 86-114.

Riddel C, Rashid R, Thomas V. “Ungual and periungual human papillomavirus associated squamous cell carcinoma: A review.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2011;64:1147-53.

Que SKT, Zwald F, et al. “Cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma Incidence, risk factors, diagnosis, and staging.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2018;78:237-47.

Written by:
Paula Ludmann, MS

Reviewed by:
Elan M. Newman, MD, FAAD
Rajiv Nijhawan, MD, FAAD
Brittany Oliver, MD, FAAD

Last updated: 4/28/23