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Education Library: Cysts

Introduction

Cysts are harmless growths that develop beneath the skin. They appear as small moveable bumps. Cysts usually grow slowly and do not cause pain. Occasionally, cysts can become infected. Your doctor can safely and easily remove cysts that bother you.

Anatomy

Your skin covers your body and protects it from the environment. Your skin is composed of three major layers, the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. The epidermis is the outermost layer of your skin. It protects your inner skin layer. The epidermis is made up of protein containing cells called keratinocytes, also referred to as squamous cells. The keratinocytes form at the bottom layer of the epidermis and move upward to the outer layer. They eventually wear off and are replaced by the next layer of cells. The epidermis also contains melanocytes. This type of cell contains color pigments called melanin. The lowest layer of the epidermis is composed of basal cells.

The dermis is your second layer of skin. It is made up of connective tissue and provides structure. It is composed of collagen and various elements that give your skin strength and elasticity. The dermis contains hair cells, sweat glands, and sebaceous glands that secrete oils to hydrate the skin.

Subcutaneous tissue composes your inner most layer of skin. Subcutaneous tissue contains fat cells. The fat cells insulate your body and make your skin appear plump and full. Below the subcutaneous tissue are fat tissues, your muscles, and your bones.

Causes

Cysts are sacs located beneath the skin. A cyst is filled with keratin protein cells. Cysts develop from swollen hair follicles and skin trauma. The face, neck, trunk and near joint spaces are common sites for cysts. Cysts usually are painless and grow slowly. They occasionally can become infected.

Symptoms

Cysts are small moveable lumps beneath the skin. They usually do not cause pain. Drainage from the cyst may be grayish-white, cheesy, and smell bad. Sometimes cysts become infected and form painful abscesses. An infected cyst can appear red and feel tender and warm.

Diagnosis

Your doctor can start to diagnose a cyst by examining your skin. In rare cases, a doctor may take a biopsy to rule out other conditions, such as cancer, that may appear similar. A biopsy involves taking a small skin sample for examination.

Treatment

Cysts are harmless and usually do not require treatment. If the cyst is located in a place that bothers you, you can have it removed. Cysts can easily be surgically removed in your doctor’s office. In some cases, steroid medication can be injected into the cyst to shrink it. Your doctor can drain inflamed cysts and prescribe antibiotic medication.

Prevention

To prevent infection, you should refrain from attempting to “pop” a cyst or remove its contents. Your doctor can safely remove cysts that bother you.

Am I at Risk?

You may be at risk for cysts if you have had cysts before. Cysts that are removed may recur.

Complications

Cysts are harmless growths. On occasion, they can become infected. Your doctor can treat infected cysts or abscesses.

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