When to worry about a lump under your skin

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Many lumps under the skin are harmless, but they could be something more serious. Dr Roshaan Saloojee, a Livi GP, explains what to look out for.

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Finding a new lump on your body can be worrying, and it’s easy to let your mind jump to the worst possible outcome. But not every lump is a cause for alarm – most are harmless and can be left alone.

‘Most lumps are usually nothing to worry about,’ says Dr Roshaan Saloojee, a Livi GP. ‘But sometimes a lump may need treatment or immediate care. You should see a GP if you have concerns about a lump or if it persists for more than 2 weeks.’

Why it’s important to check your body regularly

‘It’s important to be familiar with your body and examine yourself regularly, so you can spot any new changes or lumps quickly and get advice from a doctor if needed,’ explains Dr Saloojee.

Get into the habit of self-examining your armpits and breasts or testicles and get to know what is and isn’t ‘normal’ for you.’

What’s the difference between a benign and a cancerous lump?

Lumps that are benign (non-cancerous) and usually nothing to worry about generally:

  • Are soft
  • Are located in the superficial or fat layer of skin
  • Move around when touched

‘There are some features that make a lump particularly concerning,’ says Dr Saloojee.

Lumps that need checking by a doctor generally:

  • Are hard and may be painless
  • Don’t move and are fixed to the skin or tissue
  • Get larger

What are the most common causes of a lump?

Lumps and swellings can appear anywhere on your body. Some lumps are specific to one place, while others can occur in many different parts of the body. Common examples include:

  • Lipoma – a benign fatty lump that feels smooth, soft and squashy to touch.
  • Skin tag – a small, soft, fleshy growth on the skin.
  • Cyst – a fluid-filled lump under the surface of the skin that moves when you touch it.
  • Skin abscess – a hard, painful lump that may be red and hot to the touch. ‘Skin abscesses usually contain pus and are a sign of infection,’ says Dr Saloojee

What are the most common places to find a lump?

1. Breasts

It’s important to remember that breast lumps are common in men and women and most aren’t caused by breast cancer. It may be that you’ve got a fibroadenoma – a benign breast lump, which consists of fibrous tissue and glandular tissue.

It could also be a cyst. ‘Breast cysts are common breast lumps that develop naturally as the breast changes with age due to changes in hormone levels,’ says Dr Saloojee.

What to watch for ‘Fibroadenomas are smooth lumps, which can move easily under the skin when pressed,’ says Dr Saloojee. People who have fibrocystic breasts may find it hard to notice a new breast lump.

‘Breast cysts can feel soft or hard and can vary in size. They’re usually oval or round and can develop quickly anywhere in the breast. Occasionally they can feel uncomfortable and even painful.’

Breast cancer lumps are often hard and painless (although some may be painful), irregularly shaped and different from your surrounding breast tissue.

How often to check Get into the habit of checking your breasts once a month to familiarise yourself with how they normally look and feel.

When to see a doctor Any breast lump should be examined by a doctor.

2. Neck and armpits

The most common cause of lumps in the neck or armpit are swollen glands (or lymph nodes) known as lymphadenopathy. Swollen glands are often caused by mild infections like colds, sore throats and tonsillitis. Less commonly, glands may swell due to a condition, including rheumatoid arthritis or cancer.

‘Other neck lumps include a thyroid goitre, which is an abnormal swelling of the thyroid gland,’ explains Dr Saloojee.

What to watch for Swollen glands feel like tender, painful lumps on either side of the neck, under the jaw or armpit. More serious conditions may cause the glands to become very hard and painless.

A goitre gives you a lump at the front of your neck. ‘The size of a goitre can vary and may move up and down when you swallow,’ says Dr Saloojee.

How often to check Check your neck and armpits around once a month. It’s worth checking them at the same time you do a breast check.

When to see a doctor Swollen glands usually resolve by themselves within 2 weeks. If they last longer, you should speak to a GP. A doctor can also check whether your thyroid gland is swollen if you think you may have a goitre.

3. Testicles

‘Lumps and swellings in the testicles can have different causes,’ says Dr Saloojee. ‘They can be harmless lumps, such as fluid-filled cysts or swollen veins called varicoceles. But sometimes they’re a sign of a serious problem such as testicular cancer.’

What to watch for Your testicles should feel firm but not hard, and smooth, without any bumps or lumps.

Early signs of testicular cancer may include:

  • A hard lump in the testicle
  • An enlargement or swelling of the testicle
  • A testicle that feels more firm than usual

How often to check It’s a good idea to check your testicles every month, so you’re familiar with their normal shape and size.

When to see a doctor If you notice any lumps, swellings or other changes, it’s important to get checked by a doctor.

4. Groin

Common causes of a lump in the groin area include swollen glands, an enlarged vein known as a saphena varix, and sexually transmitted infections like genital warts.

‘Hernias can also occur in the groin area. These are lumps caused by internal parts of the body pushing through a weakness in the muscle or tissue wall,’ explains Dr Saloojee.

What to watch for ‘A hernia lump can often be pushed back in or disappears when you lie down. Coughing or straining may also make the lump appear. Occasionally, they can become painful,’ explains Dr Saloojee.

How often to check It’s worth checking the lymph nodes in your groin once a month. This can be done at the same time as you check other areas of your skin for new lumps and bumps.

When to see a doctor If you have a lump in the groin area, make an appointment with a doctor to check if it’s a hernia.

5. Hands and wrists

‘Ganglion cysts are benign lumps that develop along the tendons or joints of your wrists or hands. They can happen in people who have osteoarthritis or who’ve had previous joint or tendon injuries,’ says Dr Saloojee.

What to watch for ‘Ganglion cysts are round or oval and are filled with a jelly-like fluid. They can feel like a small, firm water balloon but are usually compressible,’ explains Dr Saloojee.

How often to check No need to check for this one, as you’ll likely notice when it appears.

When to see a doctor ‘If you notice an unusual lump on your hand, which may or may not cause pain or affect the way you use your hand, you should get it checked out by a GP,’ says Dr Saloojee.

6. Bottom

A lump around or inside your bottom may be due to piles (haemorrhoids). The veins in your bottom can become stretched under pressure, causing them to bulge and swell, creating small, round lumps. This may be caused by straining during bowel movements, constipation or diarrhoea, pregnancy and heavy lifting.

‘A lump may also be caused by a rectal prolapse, where part of the tissue inside the bottom protrudes out of the anus,’ says Dr Saloojee.

What to watch for Piles inside and around your bottom may cause itching, pain and bright red blood after you poo.

How often to check You’re likely to notice piles or a rectal prolapse when you go to the toilet or shower, so there’s no need to routinely check.

When to see a doctor ‘Any lump in and around the bottom should be examined by a doctor to exclude anything more serious,’ says Dr Saloojee.

When should I get a lump checked?

‘If you’re worried about a lump, or it’s been there for more than 2 weeks, speak to a doctor to get it checked out as soon as possible,’ says Dr Saloojee.

‘Regularly examining your body is vital because spotting any new lumps quickly can be an important way to catch anything serious early.’

Always see a doctor if you have a lump that:

  • Is growing in size
  • Is painful, red or hot
  • Is hard and fixed
  • Grows back after being removed

‘A doctor will take a history of your symptoms and examine the lump. They may be able to tell you what’s causing it straight away and provide treatment,’ says Dr Saloojee.

‘If there’s uncertainty about the cause or diagnosis, a doctor may refer you for an ultrasound scan to assess the lump or for a biopsy where a small sample of the lump is removed and tested.

‘For more concerning lumps, a doctor may refer you to a specialist for further investigations.’

This article has been medically approved by Dr Roshaan Saloojee, a Livi GP

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