A cyst is a small sac that can grow on the skin, organs, and other body tissues. There are hundreds of different types of cysts, most of which are harmless. In some rare cases, however, these structures can be a sign of a more serious condition, such as a hormonal imbalance or cancer.
What a sac is filled with determines whether it is a cyst, an abscess, or a tumor. Cysts are usually filled with fluid, such as skin oil, although they may also contain air, water, or semi-solid matter from the body. Abscesses are often the result of an infection and contain pus. Tumors are typically filled with body tissue.
What Is the Difference Between Cysts and Tumors?
Cysts and tumors both appear as abnormal lumps on or within the body. However, a tumor grows out of tissue while a cyst grows out of fluid or air. These differing textures will reveal whether a lump is a tumor or a cyst. Tumors feel hard to the touch while cysts feel softer.
Both of these entities may grow over time and may be accompanied by swelling, but the causes and prognoses can be extremely different. Tumors are more likely to be malignant than cysts due to the abnormal growth of tissue which may cause pain or cancer whether benign or malignant. Cysts are usually benign unless they contain solid masses within them or reflect other cancerous activity within the body.
Small lumps on the skin often develop when oil or other fluids cannot flow freely from the body. Many harmless cysts on the skin occur when hair follicles become damaged or blocked. Oil-secreting glands known as sebaceous glands can also rupture and become blocked, stopping the oil from shedding normally. Most lumps caused by blocked glands or follicles are benign, meaning that they are generally harmless and not a sign of a more serious problem, like cancer.
Hormonal imbalances can sometimes cause the growth of sacs on internal organs. Breast and ovarian cysts are often linked to an imbalance in estrogen, which can interrupt ovulation cycles and cause tissue overgrowth. These conditions can sometimes be treated with hormone therapy.
Some medical professionals believe that chronic inflammation or trauma can also cause some types of cysts to grow on body tissue. While the exact role these factors play is unclear, some experts suggest that injuries may cause the depletion of the membranes that cover joints and organs, allowing cysts to form more easily. Infections in the body may also have a similar effect, causing a breakdown of tissue that leads to fluid-filled sacs.
In some cases, a cyst may form while a baby develops in the womb. This can sometimes signify organ disorders, since they tend to appear on organs that are not developing correctly. Similarly, genetic conditions such as Gardner's Syndrome, in which polyps, tumors, and cysts form throughout the body, or inherited genetic mutations may raise a person's risk of developing these growths.
Occasionally, cysts can be related to tumors. They may appear on top of developing growths, or form on the same organs. While tumors can be cancerous, many varieties are actually harmless.
Are There Ways to Prevent Cysts?
Most of the causes of cysts are relatively uncontrollable such as blockage, cell defects, parasites, tumors, or chronic inflammatory conditions. Due to the nature of these conditions, the cyst will likely appear as a symptom rather than the sole problem. Therefore, prevention methods more closely treat the overall health of the patient rather than ensuring they will not develop a cyst in the future.
Some of the best ways to prevent cysts are to reduce inflammation through diet and stress control. High-stress situations can encourage bodily inflammation and increase the likelihood of cysts. One study concludes that red meat and cheese may influence benign cyst formation while a diet of green vegetables may discourage cysts.
A method that may seem overly simple is to merely maintain hygienic practices. Since one cause of sebaceous cysts are blockages of the follicle, regular washing and exfoliation may help to minimize the risk of cysts, especially for those prone to that condition. Maintaining cleanliness can further reduce the likelihood of infection in areas where cysts can be common.
Finally, trauma to the skin or body may be another cause of cysts. Avoiding injury to the head and body increases safety for many reasons, and preventing cysts is among those benefits.
When cysts develop on the skin, the most common symptom is a small lump or bump. These growths are generally small and match the color of the skin, though some may seem irritated and red. They may come and go on their own, or persist for weeks. Many skin cysts are painless and do not cause other symptoms; one that grows on a joint, such as behind the knee, however, may cause pain or irritation.
Breast-tissue cysts are often somewhat painful. Instead of developing on the surface, they tend to be deeper inside the tissue, and may be found by doing a manual examination on the breasts. Any painful or painless lumps in the breast should be checked out by a medical professional.
Growths on organs may be somewhat more difficult to identify. They are often associated with pain or decreased function of the organ; for example, people who suddenly have trouble urinating may have developed a growth on the kidney or bladder. In most cases, however, organ cysts have no visible symptoms and are only found through body-tissue scans, such as ultrasounds or MRIs.
What Are Self-treatment Options for a Cyst?
Since many instances of cysts occur with mild and temporary symptoms, there are a few safe methods to care for cysts at home. The main goal of self-treatment regimens should be to reduce irritation and promote healing. Warm compresses and localized cleansing are the best ways to treat a cyst between checkups.
Gently applying a warm cloth to the affected area serves to soothe skin and reduce swelling. The increased heat around the area will encourage draining and reduce the thickness of the trapped liquid, so a fluid-filled cyst may benefit from a few daily compresses.
Cysts that appear on or near the skin may be related to blocked glands or follicles. Cleansing this area with gentle soaps can aid in washing away aggravating substances around the blockage site and discourage infection.
Individuals should always maintain gentle and non-invasive practices within the home. Any methods of care should occur under the recommendation of a doctor. However, a cyst should never be drained at home by way of popping, piercing, or cutting. These lumps will often correct themselves naturally and may be more likely to do so with the encouragement of a compress and a cleanse.
Types of Cyst
Skin growths include several different categories. Pilar cysts tend to form on the scalp, and are caused by blocked hair follicles. Baker's cysts appear behind the knee joint, and can be very swollen or painful. Spermatoceles grow on the skin surrounding the testicles, and are generally harmless and painless.
Common organ growths include those on the liver, kidney, and pancreas. These may decrease the function of the organs if they grow large, but they are often harmless and cause no symptoms. Ovarian cysts are fairly common in women of childbearing age. Occasionally, they can be extremely large and painful, and may lead to a condition known as polycystic ovary syndrome, in which the surface of the ovaries is rippled with many lumps due to hormonal imbalances.
Sacs can also grow in the mouth and throat. Children may develop dentigerious sacs, which are tender fluid-filled growths that appear around teeth just before they break through the gums. Vocal fold nodules form in the throat and on the vocal chords, causing hoarseness and changes in the voice.
What Are the Common Problems From Cysts?
Cysts do not usually pose a significant threat to a person’s health or well-being since they are often benign. One of the greatest risks with an untreated cyst is potential infection or pain. These complications can be more common in Bartholin’s cysts, ovarian cysts, and Baker’s cysts.
Though many cysts in these locations can remain painless or resolve over time, some individuals may experience pain or inflammation around the area. If the cyst was present for a time before becoming painful, an infection may have spread to the fluid trapped within the cyst.
The increased swelling and tenderness associated with an infection will increase the pain experienced by people with cysts. However, infected cysts will usually pop and drain naturally if a doctor does not treat the condition first. Doctors can drain the site and may choose to prescribe antibiotics to prevent further infection as the abscess heals.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Medical professionals will often diagnose skin growths simply by looking at the lumps directly. Some health care providers may do a needle biopsy to take a sample of the material in the cyst. This type of biopsy is typically used to determine whether the growth is benign or cancerous.
Imaging scans, such as ultrasounds and MRIs, are often used to examine internal growths. These scans can help identify whether there are cysts, where they are located, and how large they are. Depending on the results of the scan, a doctor may then recommend a needle biopsy or removal if the growth seems suspicious.
After diagnosing the growth, treatment options vary. Some sacs are harmless and small, and may simply be left alone. If a cyst is painful or growing, a medical professional may suggest draining the fluid out. Large growths may be surgically removed. For growths caused by hormones, such as breast and ovarian cysts, treatment may focus on correcting the imbalance to prevent further problems.