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What is a Xanthoma?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2016
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A xanthoma is a lesion caused by an unusual buildup of fat near the surface of the skin. Lesions appear as small, yellow bumps and can emerge anywhere on the body, though they are most common on the eyelids, hands, feet, and various joints. While a xanthoma does not normally pose health problems itself, it may be indicative of an underlying condition, such as diabetes or liver disease. It is important to speak with a dermatologist or primary care physician at the first sign of abnormal bumps in order to obtain an accurate diagnosis and learn about treatment options.

Xanthomas are collections of certain types of fat, most prominently cholesterol and triglycerides derived from food. Skin lesions appear when the body is unable to efficiently break down fats into usable energy. Diabetes, hypothyroidism, liver problems, and genetic defects can all contribute to the growth of a xanthoma. A condition called hyperlipidemia, which basically means high cholesterol, is also a significant risk factor. A person might develop high cholesterol because of an inherited genetic disposition, poor dietary choices, or a combination of the two.

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A specific condition known as xanthelasma palpebrarum causes soft, flat, slow-growing lesions on the upper or lower eyelids. Tuberous xanthomas are hard and typically emerge on the feet, hands, and joints. Other types of lesions can arise on the arms or buttocks, and some appear on tendons and ligaments near the skin. Most lesions are yellow in color and no larger than a standard pencil eraser, though some xanthomas can grow to about three inches (7.62 centimeters) in diameter.

A physician can usually identify a xanthoma simply by examining the affected area of skin. Additional diagnostic procedures, such as tissue biopsies, liver tests, and blood screenings, can be performed to confirm a diagnosis and rule out other potential causes of skin problems. Laboratory tests on blood and skin samples are useful in detecting any underlying disorders. After making an appropriate diagnosis, the physician can decide how to treat problems.

Since most xanthomas are considered harmless, they do not require direct medical treatment. A person who is concerned about the cosmetic appearance of skin lesions, however, may decide to have them removed by a surgical specialist. In general, xanthomas tend to disappear over time when their underlying cause is effectively treated. Doctors can prescribe medications for high cholesterol, diabetes, and hypothyroidism to help reduce symptoms and lessen the risk of potentially life-threatening health problems. Maintaining a healthy diet and carefully following a doctor's orders minimizes the chances of a xanthoma reappearing.

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