QUESTION: My granddad has brown spots on his skin that he calls "liver spots." What are they, and what causes them? (Asked by a curious young'un.)
REPLY: These flat, brown or brownish-black blemishes on the skin are called liver spots or age spots (sometimes senile freckles). They were once incorrectly believed to be caused by liver problems, but they actually have nothing to do with the liver, perhaps save for their color. The spots are common in people after the age of 40 and generally arise from a particular lifestyle.
Age spots are commonly located on the arms, shoulders, neck and forehead -- areas most exposed to the sun. As we age, the skin is less able to regenerate from sun exposure, and spots appear on those who have spent a lot of time in the sun. The pigment melanin, which causes a suntan, is produced in concentration or clumps in the upper layer of the skin. People with light skin who have a lot of exposure to the sun or tanning beds are more likely to develop age spots.
The vast majority of liver spots are harmless and require no treatment. In general, they are painless and not associated with skin cancer. But if you have a spot that seems abnormal, you should consult a doctor to be sure. (I have several age spots, and they are just there, reminding me that I'm over 40 and maybe spent too much time in the sun. I prefer to call them beauty spots.)
C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): "Doesn't expecting the unexpected make the unexpected expected?" -- Anonymous
Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC 29649, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to www.curiosity-corner.net.