Xanthomas Overview

Close-up photo of the human knee on a white background
An allergic reaction or a xanthoma? See more pictures of skin problems.
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Throughout your life you've probably noticed various bumps coming and going on your skin. When you're younger these bumps can be acne, an allergic reaction or an infection like the chicken pox. However, there is a skin condition known as xanthoma that may be masquerading as acne or an allergic reaction. This exotic-sounding affliction is actually pretty common. Xanthomas are bumps that form when fat collects in pockets under the skin, and usually occurs in those over the age of 40. These bumps can pop up anywhere on your body but are most frequently found near the eyes, hands, feet and joints [sources: Lehrer, Fair].

Xanthomas are usually painless, but they can be unsightly. These bumps often appear yellow to red in color, occur in clusters and come in a variety of sizes, ranging from very small to larger than several inches. There are several types of xanthomas and each has it's own specific features and locations. The most common kind of xanthoma is xanthelasma palpebrarum which usually appears as a yellow, velvety bump on the eyelids. Tuberous xanthomas are firm, reddish-yellow bumps that usually form on pressure areas like the elbows and knees. Eruptive xanthomas are also red-yellow in color and these often occur in clusters on the buttocks or shoulders. Unlike most xanthomas, this type can be painful and itch. [source: Fair]. Because of their specific features and locations, xanthomas are often diagnosed by physicial exam but a biopsy can confirm a diagnosis if there are any doubts.


Although xanthomas themselves do not pose a medical threat, they are usually a sign of another medical disorder, so notify your doctor if think you spot one. Often their presence is due to a problem metabolizing lipids, or fats. When lipids aren't metabolized quickly enough, they can coalesce underneath the skin as xanthomas [sources: Lehrer, Fair]. Because a lipid disorder could be a serious threat to your health, discussing xanthomas with your doctor is very important.

You might be wondering what causes xanthomas. To learn more about the metabolic disorders that cause xanthomas, read on.


Cause of Xanthomas

Xanthomas are a symptom of an excess of lipids in the blood, commonly referred to as high cholesterol. So xanthomas are caused by high cholesterol but what causes high cholesterol?

High cholesterol is caused by a number of factors, some that you can control, and others that you can't. Some conditions, like diabetes, heart disease and hypothyroidism, can cause high cholesterol [sources: Lehrer, WebMD]. Many people end up with high cholesterol due to poor lifestyle choices, like eating a fatty diet, never setting foot in a gym, being overweight, smoking a pack a day or a combination of all of them. Those medications you're taking to help other ailments may be contributing to your high cholesterol. Common drugs known to raise cholesterol levels include thiazide diuretics, estrogen, corticosterioids and beta blockers.


Before you beat yourself up however, high cholesterol can be caused by things you can't change. There are those that are genetically predisposed to have a higher cholesterol level. If other people in your family have been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you may also be at risk, so be sure to inform your doctor if high cholesterol runs in your family. While it is rare, some have an inherited lipid disorder and their bodies' don't handle cholesterol the way a normal, healthy body would. [source: WebMD].

As with many conditions, prevention is the best treatment. To learn more about treating xanthomas, move on to the next page.


Treating Xanthomas

Because xanthomas are usually caused by high cholesterol, the best way to treat them it is to treat the high cholesterol. First, if your high cholesterol is a result of another disorder, like diabetes, you need to get this disorder under control [source: Lehrer]. Those without any of the disorders that cause high cholesterol should focus on lifestyle changes, beginning with diet. Foods containing trans or saturated fats tend to raise cholesterol levels in the body. This means you shouldn't overindulge in meat and dairy products, and you should avoid processed foods. Eating right isn't the only way to help prevent high cholesterol. Physical activity and weight loss is a big way to lower, or even prevent, high cholesterol. After all, a healthy, lean body functions much better than one stuck on the couch with a bag of chips. Finally, put that pack of cigarettes down, it helps lower your cholesterol and can make it a lot easier to catch your breath after a workout [source: WebMD].

Your doctor also might recommend medications to lower your lipid levels. While many of these medications have been proven successful, there has been little research about how their usage directly relates to decreasing xanthomas. Some xanthomas disappear within a few weeks after starting medication while others may take years or never resolve at all. Some xanthomas may even go away without any treatment [source: Fair].


If xanthomas do not disappear after treating high lipid levels, there are some topical or surgical procedures available. You should note, however, that xanthomas can reappear even after surgical removal [source: Lehrer, Fair]. Discuss the various options with your doctor to decide what is best for your condition and to how to become xanthoma-free.

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Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Diabetes Association. "Skin Complications." (Accessed 8/10/2009) http://www.diabetes.org/for-parents-and-kids/what-is-diabetes/skin-complications.jsp
  • Fair, Kevaghn P. "Xanthomas." eMedicine. November 25, 2008. (Accessed 8/9/2009) http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1103971-overview
  • Lehrer, Michael S. "Medical Encyclopedia: Xanthoma." Medline Plus. April 16, 2007. (Accessed 8/9/2009)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/MEDLINEPLUS/ency/article/001447.htm
  • Healthline. "Surgical Procedures for Xanthoma." (Accessed 8/10/2009) http://www.healthline.com/treatments/xanthoma__#diagnostic
  • WebMD. "High Cholesterol - Cause." July 11, 2008. (Accessed 8/9/2009) http://www.webmd.com/cholesterol-management/tc/high-cholesterol-cause
  • WebMD. "Understanding Cholesterol Problems - Symptoms." November 26, 2008. (Accessed 8/9/2009)http://www.webmd.com/cholesterol-management/understanding-cholesterol-problems-symptoms