A skin biopsy is a procedure in which a sample of skin tissue is removed, processed, and examined under a microscope.
Several different methods may be used to obtain a skin sample, depending on the size and location of the abnormal area of skin, called a skin lesion. The skin sample is placed in a solution, such as formaldehyde, or in a sterile container if infection is suspected. In each of these procedures, the tissue is processed and then examined under a microscope.
Skin biopsies most often are done to diagnose skin cancer, which may be suspected when an abnormal area of skin has changed colour, shape, size, or appearance or has not healed after an injury. Skin cancers are the most common type of cancers.
Early diagnosis of a suspicious skin lesion and skin biopsy can help identify skin cancers and lead to early treatment.
A skin biopsy is done to diagnose a:
Before a skin biopsy, tell your doctor if you:
No special preparation is needed before having this test.
You may be asked to sign a consent form that says you understand the risks of the test and agree to have it done.
Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risk, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form(What is a PDF document?).
Usually the place where the biopsy will be taken is cleaned with an alcohol wipe. A marker may be used to outline the edges of the skin sample. For some biopsies, a surgical drape is used to cover the area around the biopsy and the doctor will wear a mask, gown, and gloves.
Several different methods may be used to obtain a skin sample, depending on the size and location of the skin lesion. The skin sample is placed in a solution, such as formaldehyde, or in a sterile container if infection is suspected. In each of these procedures, the tissue is then examined under a microscope.
You will feel brief stinging pain when the local anesthetic is injected. You should not feel any pain when the skin sample is removed.
Although unlikely, there is a slight risk of infection and a slight risk of persistent bleeding. If you usually form scars after skin injuries or surgery, you could develop a scar at the biopsy site.
Your doctor will give you specific instructions on how to care for your biopsy site. Keep the biopsy site clean and dry until it heals completely.
Your stitches will be taken out 3 to 14 days after the biopsy, depending on the biopsy site. Adhesive bandages should remain in place until they fall off. This usually takes from 7 to 14 days.
The biopsy site may be sore or bleed slightly for several days. Ask your doctor how much bleeding or other drainage is expected. Call your doctor immediately if you have:
Results from a skin biopsy usually are available in 3 to 10 days.
The skin sample consists of normal skin tissue.
Non-cancerous (benign) growths are seen. Benign growths do not contain cancer cells. Benign skin changes include moles, skin tags, warts, seborrheic keratoses, keloids, cherry angiomas, and benign skin tumours, such as neurofibromas or dermatofibromas.
Cancer cells such as basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer, or melanoma are present.
Other diseases such as lupus, psoriasis, or vasculitis are present.
A bacterial or fungal infection is present.
Your doctor will talk with you about any abnormal results that may be related to your symptoms and past health.
Taking medicines, such as anti-inflammatory medicines, those used for fungal infections (antifungal medicines), and corticosteroid skin creams, can interfere with your test or the accuracy of the results.
Other Works Consulted
Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2008). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 5th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.
Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineDonald Sproule, MDCM, CCFP - Family MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineSpecialist Medical ReviewerAmy McMichael, MD - Dermatology
Current as ofOctober 14, 2016
Current as of: October 14, 2016
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
& Donald Sproule, MDCM, CCFP - Family Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Amy McMichael, MD - Dermatology
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