Birthmark Basics: What Is a Hemangioma?

You may not be familiar with the term infantile hemangioma, but you've probably heard of some of the non-medical names for this phenomenon, such as strawberry birthmark, stork bite, or angel kiss.

A hemangioma is a birthmark that appears as a spongy mass and is caused by an abnormally dense group of blood vessels. Hemangiomas can be superficial or extend deep into the skin, sometimes even affecting internal organs.

Hemangiomas usually appear within a few weeks after birth and generally peak by 10 weeks. They commonly occur on the head or neck, but can appear any place. Hemangiomas grow rapidly for a short time, and then slowly disappear, sometimes leaving behind a faint discoloration. About 15 percent of babies with hemangiomas (especially in multiple births) have more than one lesion.

Physicians are not entirely sure what causes hemangiomas, but suspect there may be a link between the lesions and certain placental proteins. They do not seem to be related to environmental exposures or drugs mothers take during pregnancy.

Most hemangiomas go away on their own and don't require medical attention. However, if your child has a hemangioma that starts to bleed, forms a sore or bruise, becomes firm, appears infected, or grows suddenly over a few days, you need to see your pediatrician right away.

Traditionally, hemangiomas that required intervention were treated with lasers, steroids, surgery, or some combination of these treatments. These procedures all have risks and side effects, so many physicians and parents choose to keep a close eye on the lesion to see if and how they change before opting to take action. Dermatologist Craig Kraffert, MD, says the new standard of care is propranolol (a non-selective beta blocker) and similar compounds.

Most hemangiomas are unsightly for a short time and don't cause physical or psychological damage. However, in some cases, hemangiomas can cause permanent disfigurement, especially if they are on the face or involve one or more vital organs. Hemangiomas can be life threatening if they interfere with vision, breathing, hearing, or eating.

The organization advocates a proactive treatment approach rather than active observation. Treatment proponents acknowledge that all hemangiomas regress to some degree; however, they believe it's frequently not to a cosmetically acceptable level. They say more than half of patients with facial vascular lesions who wait five or more years before treating will end up having some surgical or laser intervention.

Whether or not you should treat your child's hemangiomas depends on many factors including your child's age and the location of the birthmark, so be sure to discuss all the options with your pediatrician.

Craig Kraffert, MD, reviewed this article.




Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "Hemangiomas." Web. November 2010. "What is a Hemangioma?" Web. "Hemangioma Treatment and Hemangioma Removal Options." Web.

Mayo Clinic. "Hemangiomas." Web. 1 September 2010.

Henderson, Diedtra. "Infantile Hemangiomas Grow Fastest in Early Weeks After Birth. Medscape Medical News. Web. 23 July 2012.