So much of being healthy comes down to doing small, preventative things on a consistent basis, like eating a balanced diet and exercising. That also includes seeing your primary care physician at least once a year for a thorough physical and your dentist about every six months for a cleaning and an evaluation.
But where does the dermatologist fit in—how often should you be seeing one?
What a dermatologist does
Too often, many of us wait to see a dermatologist until we’ve been referred by our primary care physician or we have a specific cause for concern. So it may help to define what exactly a dermatologist does.
Big picture: A dermatologist prevents and treats conditions or diseases associated with your skin, hair, nails, and oral cavity. Skin cancer screenings and treatments are a leading reason why people will see a dermatologist for the first time. But there are a host of other common conditions that we can help with, including:
- Acne: When over-the-counter products haven’t helped, we can discuss prescription medications.
- Eczema: Similarly, a prescription medication may be more effective at relieving itchy, flaky patches.
- Scar removal: A dermatologist can treat scars caused by a host of skin conditions, as well as stretch marks, and address any cosmetic concerns stemming from them.
- Wart removal: A dermatologist is best suited to treat all sorts of commonly-occurring warts, including foot and genital warts.
If you’re healthy, it’s still a good idea to schedule a full-body exam with a dermatologist at least once a year. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives—a rate that appears to be increasing—so think of the annual exam as a proactive way of monitoring for skin cancer and other potential disorders.
And in between those exams, you should be doing your own skin and mole check at home every three months. Melanoma is totally treatable if it’s caught at the earliest stage. But the survival rate falls sharply to 50 percent if it’s been allowed to grow unnoticed to more than four millimeters deep.
You’re looking for what’s described as the classic “ABCD” features:
- Asymmetry: Is one half of the mole different from the other?
- Border irregularity: Are the edges uneven, blurred, or notched?
- Color: Is the color uneven? Is there any black or shades of brown?
- Diameter: Is the diameter greater than six millimeters?
There’s a catch, though: A melanoma’s only going to display these features when it’s grown to a certain size. So if you notice any change, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.
“I’m at risk”
At your first appointment with a dermatologist, be sure to bring up any of the following that applies to you if your dermatologist doesn’t ask about it first:
- You, or a close relative, have been diagnosed with or treated for skin cancer.
- You’ve spent a lot of time in the sun at any point in your life.
- You have a mole with suspicious characteristics.
- You have a skin condition, such as eczema or psoriasis.
Everyone’s unique, so allow your dermatologist to use that information and the results of your exam to create a personalized schedule. It’s not uncommon for a patient with certain risk factors to see a dermatologist two to three times a year, but it’s also not always necessary.
“I think something’s wrong”
Regular check-ups are usually enough to monitor and treat most skin conditions, but some instances warrant immediate attention. See a dermatologist as soon as possible if you notice:
- a suspicious-looking mole;
- a dark discoloration on your skin that bleeds or won’t heal;
- an itch or rash that isn’t healing;
- an unusual nodule or bump.
As with any other aspect of your health, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. So scheduling an appointment with a dermatologist should never be considered an overreaction.