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What are Atypical Melanocytes?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Atypical melanocytes are pigment-producing cells with an abnormal appearance. They are usually identified during a physical examination when a doctor notes an unusual skin lesion and can be examined by a pathologist in a laboratory setting to learn more about what is going on inside the cells. In some cases, they are malignant, while in others, they may be benign. It is important for skin lesions to be evaluated to determine their nature before deciding on how to proceed with treatment.

Most commonly, atypical melanocytes appear in a pigmented lesion with irregular borders. The lesion may change rapidly, suggesting that uncontrolled cell growth is occurring, but this is not always the case. Often, such growths are identified by care providers, as they may be in locations where patients do not look, or patients may not recognize the tell-tale signs of a problematic skin lesion.

A doctor can take a scraping of a suspicious growth or remove it altogether and send the cells out for biopsy. If a pathologist identifies atypical melanocytes, as much information as possible about the cells will be provided. This will determine whether they are malignant, pre-malignant, or benign. If the cells appear dangerous, additional treatment such as surgery around the margins or radiation to suppress cell growth may be recommended. In other cases, a wait and see approach must be recommended.

In the case of benign atypical melanocytes, monitoring of the lesion over time is usually recommended. While these cells may not present a problem, there can be an increased risk of developing a malignant skin condition. Catching the condition earlier will provide more treatment options, and can also increase the chances of a successful treatment option. Increasing awareness of the risks of skin cancer has made many people much more conscientious about checking and monitoring for changes to the skin.

Patients may also want to consider a second opinion when atypical melanocytes are identified. Doctors who specialize in skin care are usually happy to provide referrals to colleagues so patients can feel confident with a diagnosis and treatment plan. Every doctor's approach to management of skin problems is unique, and different recommendations from a new doctor do not necessarily mean that the previous doctor was incompetent or was recommending a dangerous course of treatment. Some doctors are more aggressive and hands on, while others prefer to be more conservative. Both treatment approaches have benefits and drawbacks and are equally valid.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon332926 — On May 02, 2013

"Melanocyte" refers to the individual cell, so it's really something seen and described under the microscope. The cells can occur within one lesion (seen as a pigmented spot with the naked eye), or be scattered throughout the skin, or seen some distance from a thin melanoma (usually in someone badly sun damaged) and their significance in terms of later behavior is still something hotly debated by experts.

By Monika — On Jul 14, 2011

@ceilingcat - I'm glad your friend is OK. My mom had an experience a few years ago with a pigmented lesion too. She noticed a weird looking thing on her skin and got a biopsy done on it. Luckily it was benign! However, her dermatologist recommended that she get it removed anyway. I guess he was one of the ones that likes to err more on the side of caution!

By ceilingcat — On Jul 13, 2011

A friend of mine had skin cancer a few years ago and she discovered it because of changes in the pigmentation of a lesion on her skin. After this happened I made sure to familiarize myself with skin cancer symptoms. As the article mentioned, a change in the appearance of the skin is a good give away that something is wrong.

My friend is fine now, but her illness inspired a lot of the rest of us to pay closer attention to our skin.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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