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Atypical nevus in Adult
See also in: Hair and Scalp
Other Resources UpToDate PubMed

Atypical nevus in Adult

See also in: Hair and Scalp
Contributors: William M. Lin MD, Sarah Hocker DO, Susan Burgin MD
Other Resources UpToDate PubMed


An atypical nevus is a benign melanocytic lesion that appears clinically atypical with asymmetry, large size, irregular or ill-defined borders, and/or varied coloration. A dysplastic nevus (also referred to as a Clark nevus) is a histopathologic term that describes a melanocytic proliferation showing architectural disorder and cytologic atypia and sharing some features of melanoma. Dysplastic nevi usually appear clinically atypical and atypical nevi may be dysplastic; however, the clinical and histopathologic terms do not always completely correlate.

There is controversy around the term dysplastic nevus, including a lack of consensus on how it is defined and what it represents biologically. Originally described in melanoma-prone families, dysplastic nevi were part of a clinical phenotype. Patients characteristically had numerous nevi, which often appeared clinically atypical; on biopsy (as initially described by Dr. Wallace Clark), 4 main histologic features were observed: 1) atypical melanocytic hyperplasia, 2) melanocytes with cytologic features characteristic of malignant melanocytes, 3) mesenchymal changes in the papillary dermis, and 4) lymphocytic infiltrate. Since then, dysplastic nevi have been recognized to occur spontaneously, and different variations of the above diagnostic criteria (including grading of cytologic atypia as mild, moderate, or severe) have been proposed without a clear diagnostic consensus.

Dysplastic nevi usually begin to appear in childhood through early adult years and have an estimated prevalence ranging from 2%-10%. They are thought to have a genetic component and are more common in phototype I-III individuals. While less prevalent than common nevi, dysplastic nevi are believed to correlate with the overall number of melanocytic lesions in an individual and are thought to confer a 4- to 15-fold increased risk of melanoma.

While there is an increased relative risk of melanoma in individuals with multiple dysplastic nevi and dysplastic nevi can share clinical and histologic features with melanoma, current evidence does not support a dysplastic nevus as a definite premalignant lesion. Studies have shown that most melanomas appear to arise de novo without an associated nevus, and even when an associated nevus is present in histologic contiguity with melanoma, it is more frequently a common nevus than a dysplastic nevus.

Related topic: agminated nevus


D23.9 – Other benign neoplasm of skin, unspecified

254818000 – Atypical nevus of skin

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Differential Diagnosis & Pitfalls

  • Seborrheic keratosis – Many may fulfill one or more of the ABCDE criteria; thus, awareness of typical features of these exceedingly common skin lesions will prevent unnecessary biopsies. Notably, they are a "stuck on-" or waxy-appearing tan-to-dark-brown papule.
  • Pigmented basal cell carcinoma may be confused at times with a nevus.
  • Melanoma
  • Compound nevus
  • Blue nevus
  • Combined nevus (most commonly blue nevus and compound nevus together)
  • Dermatofibroma
  • Lentigo
  • Lentigo maligna
  • Congenital nevus
  • Recurrent melanocytic nevus – History of the initial biopsy is often critical for the dermatologist and/or pathologist. Recurrent nevi characteristically occur in women aged 20-30 years on the trunk within 6 months of the original biopsy. While many different clinical morphologies may be seen, it often manifests as a scar with variegated hyper-or hypopigmentation, linear streaking, and halo, stippled, and/or diffuse pigmentation patterns. While most cases do not pose a diagnostic challenge on histopathology, some specimens, especially partial biopsies, may look indistinguishable from melanoma on histopathologic grounds alone.
  • Desmoplastic nevus – Typically small (< 1 cm) skin-colored to erythematous to mildly pigmented papule or nodule on the extremity of a young adult (average age 30 years). Histopathology reveals spindled to epithelioid melanocytes within a fibrotic stroma.
  • Spitz nevus – Solitary; pinkish, tan, or red-brown; smooth-surfaced; dome-shaped papule, often with surface telangiectasia.
  • Supernumerary nipple
  • Ephelides (freckles)

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Last Updated:02/09/2023
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Patient Information for Atypical nevus in Adult
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Contributors: Medical staff writer


Atypical moles (atypical nevi) or dysplastic moles (dysplastic nevi), are caused by collections of the color-producing (pigment-producing) cells of the skin (melanocytes) in which the cells grow in an abnormal way. Atypical moles may occur as new lesions or as a change in an existing mole. Lesions may be single or multiple. In atypical-nevus syndrome, hundreds of atypical moles may be seen. People with atypical moles may be at increased risk for developing skin cancer (melanoma), with the risk increasing with the number of atypical moles present.

Who’s At Risk

  • Atypical moles may occur at any age and in all ethnic groups.
  • Atypical moles frequently run in families.
  • People with atypical moles may have a family history of melanoma.

Signs & Symptoms

  • Atypical moles may appear anywhere on the skin. The lesions can vary in size and/or color.
  • They can be larger than a pencil eraser (6 mm) and may have variations in color within the lesion ranging from pink to reddish-brown to dark brown.
  • Atypical moles may be darker brown in the center or in the edges (periphery).
  • People with atypical-nevus syndrome may have hundreds of moles of varying sizes and colors.

Self-Care Guidelines

  • Protective measures, such as avoiding skin exposure to sunlight during peak sun hours (10 AM to 3 PM), wearing protective clothing, and applying high-SPF sunscreen, are essential for reducing exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) light.
  • Monthly self-examination of the skin is helpful to detect new lesions or changes in existing lesions.
  • Be sure your atypical moles are not signs of skin cancer (melanoma). Remember the ABCDEs of melanoma lesions:
    A - Asymmetry: One half of the lesion does not mirror the other half.
    B - Border: The borders are irregular or vague (indistinct).
    C - Color: More than one color may be noted within the mole.
    D - Diameter: Size greater than 6 mm (roughly the size of a pencil eraser) may be concerning.
    E - Evolving: Notable changes in the lesion over time are suspicious signs for skin cancer.

When to Seek Medical Care

  • The occurrence of a new mole (pigmented nevus) in an adult is unusual; if a new pigmented lesion occurs, see your doctor for evaluation.
  • People with multiple moles and unusual (atypical) moles should be examined by a dermatologist every 4-12 months depending on their past history and family history.
  • It may be difficult to tell an atypical mole from a normal mole, so seek medical evaluation if you are unsure about the nature of a mole or if you note changes within a mole.
  • Your doctor may recommend that you have a biopsy or surgical removal (excision) of unusual-appearing moles to find out whether or not you have atypical moles or melanoma.


  • Biopsy or surgical removal (excision) may be done so the mole may be examined by a specialist (pathologist) to determine the actual diagnosis.
  • As noted previously, people with multiple moles and atypical moles should be followed regularly by a dermatologist. Whole-body photography or photographs of individual moles may be helpful in following these people.


Bolognia, Jean L., ed. Dermatology, pp.17, 1770. New York: Mosby, 2003.
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Atypical nevus in Adult
See also in: Hair and Scalp
A medical illustration showing key findings of Atypical nevus : Hyperpigmented macule, Irregular configuration, Multicolored plaque, Pigmented papule, Pigmented plaque
Clinical image of Atypical nevus - imageId=329573. Click to open in gallery.  caption: 'A close-up of a dark brown plaque with a central pinkish papule and a lighter brown rim.'
A close-up of a dark brown plaque with a central pinkish papule and a lighter brown rim.
Copyright © 2023 VisualDx®. All rights reserved.