by Joseph Morelli, M.D.
Associate Professor of Dermatology and Pediatrics
University of Colorado School of Medicine
What is a hemangioma?
A hemangioma is a benign tumor of the blood vessels ("capillary endothelium"). Some
hemangiomas occur as birthmarks, often spontaneously improving.
What causes hemangiomas?
The cause of hemangiomas is unknown.
Who gets hemangiomas?
Hemangiomas are a very common benign tumor of infancy. Hemangiomas occur in up to
10% of the population, most commonly in females and in premature infants.
How do hemangiomas cause disease?
Because they are tumors, hemangiomas have a mass effect, meaning they take up space
or room, which is caused by the growth of the tumor.
What are the common findings of hemangiomas?
Only 20% of hemangiomas are present at birth. The other 80% occur during the first
two months of life, usually within the first month. They appear as white-gray blue
flat spots, swollen "spider veins" (telangiectasias), or raised bumps. Then, they
undergo a rapid growth phase, lasting from six to nine months, in which they grow
faster than the child's rate of growth. After this time, the growth of the hemangioma
slows and approximates the growth rate of the child. The stable growth phase lasts
until 12 to 18 months of age at which time the hemangioma begins to undergo "involution."
During the involution phase, the tumor shrinks on its own, without the need for
treatment. Maximum shrinkage occurs in 50% of children by age 5, in 70% of children
by age 7, and in 90% of children by age 9.
Parents should know that hemangiomas do not always completely disappear; in some
cases, the affected skin does not return to its normal appearance.
Some hemangiomas leave recognizable marks following shrinkage of the tumor. These
include decreased skin color; spider veins; excess lax skin; fibrous fatty deposits;
and scarring, if the skin has broken down over the hemangioma.
Hemangiomas can appear as three different forms. The first type is the superficial
bright red form, formerly known as the strawberry mark. The second type is the deep
blue nodule, formerly known as a cavernous hemangioma. The third type is a combination
of the superficial and the deep forms, which is called a mixed hemangioma. Commonly,
the terms "superficial," "deep," and "mixed" are used to describe the three different
types of hemangiomas.
How are hemangiomas diagnosed?
Hemangiomas usually are diagnosed based on an examination and the history of the
lesion. Occasionally, magnetic resonance imaging is performed to determine the depth
of involvement of the tumor; however, this procedure is rarely necessary or helpful.
What are the complications of hemangiomas?
Most hemangiomas are uncomplicated and do not require treatment. Complications of
hemangiomas include ulceration (a breakdown of the overlying skin), infection, interference
with a vital function, and, even, high output cardiac failure. Initially, the Kasabach-Merritt
syndrome, which is a bleeding disorder, was thought to occur with hemangiomas; however,
now, it is thought to occur with hemangioendotheliomas, which are a much less common
and more aggressive tumor. Ulceration is the most common complication of hemangiomas.
Ulcerated hemangiomas occur most commonly on the lip and in the diaper areas. If
a lesion is ulcerated, it is at risk for infection. Staphylococcus aureus is the
most common bacteria in infected hemangiomas. Vision, breathing, eating, urination,
and bowel movements may all be obstructed by large, rapidly growing hemangiomas.
How are hemangiomas treated?
Most hemangiomas do not require treatment. Ulcerated hemangiomas are best treated
with a specific type of laser. This leads to rapid healing of the open area. Infection
is treated with specific antibiotics for Staphylococcus aureus. Large, rapidly growing
hemangiomas, or hemangiomas that interfere with a vital function, are treated with
systemic therapy. (Systemic therapy is treatment that affects the whole body, as
opposed to localized treatment, and can be given either by mouth or intravenous
injection.) Prednisone is the initial treatment of choice. It usually is given for
two weeks. If after two weeks of therapy the tumor growth has been slowed, treatment
is then tapered over the next four weeks. If there is no initial effect of therapy,
the dose of prednisone is maintained for another two weeks. The patient should be
seen every two weeks during therapy. Occasionally, after therapy is stopped, there
will be some rebound growth of the tumor. If this growth is substantial, therapy
should be restarted. Interferon-alfa also has been used to treat hemangiomas. The
use of interferon-alfa should be reserved for hemangiomas that do not respond to
How are hemangiomas prevented?
Currently, hemangiomas cannot be prevented.
What research is being performed?
The research most applicable to hemangiomas is being performed in the area of inhibiting
the formation of new blood vessels (anti-angiogenesis). Since hemangiomas are vascular
tumors, any therapy that inhibits blood vessel formations should impede hemangioma
growth. At this time, agents that inhibit blood vessel formation have not yet been
used for hemangioma therapy.
Are there links to other information?
A support group for families with children with hemangiomas is available at: The
National Organization of Vascular Anomalies, P.O. Box 0358, Findlay, OH 45839-0358,
phone number: (419) 425-1593, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and on the web at www.novanews.org.
Rasmussen JE. Vascular birthmarks in children. Dermatology Nursing 10:169-177, 1998.
Frieden IJ. Which hemangiomas to treat-and how? Arch Dermatol 133:1593-1595, 1997.
Morelli JG. Hemangiomas and vascular malformations. Pediatric Annals 25:91-96, 1996.
About the Author
Joseph received his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, graduating
Summa cum Laude with honors in biophysics. He completed his medical school training
in 1981 from the Harvard University School of Medicine.
He is board certified in pediatrics and dermatology and completed his residencies
in the same specialties. Joseph is a Pediatric Dermatologist with major interest
in birthmarks and vascular lesions.
He spends most of his free time coaching Little League Baseball and Midget Football!
Copyright 2012 Joseph Morelli, M.D., All Rights Reserved