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What is a Port-Wine Stain?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 August 2016
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A port-wine stain is a type of congenital birthmark which is caused by a vascular malformation, meaning that it is the result of an unusual growth of blood vessels. Port-wine stains are also sometimes referred to with the term “naevus flammeus.” Depending on the location of a port-wine stain, it may be perfectly harmless, or it may lead to complications later in life. In some cases, the birthmark is also a sign of a more serious underlying condition which needs to be addressed.

These birthmarks are a form of hemangioma, a mass of blood vessels which grows close to the skin, causing a dark mass to appear. In childhood, a port-wine stain is often very subtle, appearing as a vague area of discoloration, but the birthmark will darken with age, often turning a deep red or purple, like the port wine it is named for. In some cases, a port-wine stain may even become rough or bumpy, in which case steps may be taken to reduce or remove it.

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The best treatment for port-wine stains appears to be lasering, which can be quite effective, especially when performed on a young person. The darker the stain, the less effective lasering appears to be. Port-wine stains can also be removed surgically, although this is generally reserved for especially unsightly port-wine stains, as it requires a great deal of careful work. If left alone, a port-wine stain will simply grow with the body, turning darker with time; in some cases, it may impair the function of facial muscles, although this is relatively rare.

Some people feel that port-wine stains are unsightly, and especially large stains can certainly attract attention, especially since this birthmark is commonly found on the face. For someone with a port-wine stain, the birthmark may feel disfiguring, or lead to discomfort in social situations. For this reason, some people choose to pursue treatment so that they have a more conventional appearance. Others may choose to embrace the abnormality as a visible mark of their differences from others.

Around one in 500 babies is born with a port-wine stain, and sometimes the birthmark is so subtle that it takes a few months or years to appear in noticeable form. It is important to have any birthmarks evaluated, to ensure that they are not symptoms of a condition which might require treatment. Likewise, any radical change in the appearance of a port-wine stain is cause for a doctor's visit, as indeed any abrupt change in the skin should be.

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