How to identify different types of lumps that are most likely to appear on 8 areas of your body

A woman looks at her body in the mirror
A woman looks at her body in the mirror

There’s nothing like finding a lump somewhere on your body to make you worry – even if you’re not a hypochondriac. The word itself is loaded with dread.

Finding a strange mass might make you think the worst, but the fact is most lumps and bumps are harmless. Here’s a guide to noncancerous bumpy bits and what you can do about them.


Most likely to be an epidermal (also called sebaceous) cyst What is it exactly? Sebaceous cysts can appear anywhere on the body but are more common on the scalp, shoulders and back.

They’re caused by an accumulation of dead keratin from the skin cells around a hair follicle and look like a bump under normal skin. It’s not uncommon to have them from childhood.

They’re usually harmless but can become inflamed.

What you can do

Have the bump checked by your doctor and if it’s indeed one of these cysts, leave it alone. It might feel like a pimple but picking at it can lead to inflammation or infection.

If it does become infected or inflamed, or if it grows large enough to bother you, consult your doctor or a dermatologist about having it removed.


Most likely to be a seborrhoeic wart (also called seborrhoeic keratosis) What is it exactly? These appear as waxy, raised growths and can be anywhere on the body but they are often first noticed on the face.

It’s linked to seborrhoea, a condition characterised by excessive discharge from the sebaceous glands, causing abnormally oily skin. It’s more common in people over 40 but can happen earlier.

What you can do

Don’t panic.

Because these spots can darken over time, many people mistake them for melanoma.

But they’re generally harmless. If it bothers you because of what it looks like, see a dermatologist to have it assessed and removed.

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Most likely to be a wart What is it exactly? These small areas of thickened or crusty skin are caused by various strains of the human papilloma virus. You’re likely to have more than one wart because they tend to spread through skin contact.

Plantar warts, also known as verrucas, are similar to warts on your hands but grow inwards on the soles of the feet – often causing pain when walking or standing.

Children get warts more often than adults because their immune systems haven’t yet built up defences against the numerous types of human papilloma virus that exist.

What you can do

Most warts disappear over time.

There are over-the-counter treatments available from pharmacies, but plantar warts are more difficult to manage and you may have to see a health professional.

Warts can be spread easily from one part of the body to another, so it’s important not to pick at them and to wash your hands thoroughly after touching them.

If you have warts in an area where you shave, remember that shaving over them could transfer the virus to the razor and so spread it to other areas of your body that you shave.


Most likely to be a ganglion What is it exactly? This is a cyst or ball of fluid from the joint lining. It most commonly occurs on the back of the wrist but can also appear on the shoulders, elbows and toes.

Ganglions are usually harmless and painless, but if they end up pressing on a nerve in the joint it can lead to pain.

What you can do

Ganglions usually clear up on their own, but if they’re troublesome they can be drained or removed.

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Most likely to be a swollen gland or a goitre What is it exactly? Swollen glands are a normal immune response to infection.

You might feel pea-sized lumps in your armpits, on your neck and in your groin as your lymph glands work to destroy invading organisms.

If the lump is on the front of your neck it could be a goitre (abnormally enlarged thyroid gland). Most goitres are caused by iodine deficiency or inflammation of the thyroid gland.

What you can do

Enlarged lymph glands due to infection usually disappear on their own, but you should see your doctor if they’re still there after two weeks.

If the lump is in the front of your neck it’s best to have your thyroid checked. Not all goitres cause symptoms, but when these do occur they’re typically swelling and coughing.

Rarely, symptoms might include a tight throat or trouble breathing. Treatment may simply be eating more iodine-rich foods, but in some cases medication or surgery is required.


Most likely to be a fibroadenoma What is it exactly? A fibroadenoma feels like a firm, smooth or rubbery lump in the breast and has a well-defined shape. It moves easily under the skin and is usually painless – although it may sometimes feel tender, particularly just before a menstrual period.

These harmless growths are stimulated by reproductive hormones and as such are more common in younger women but can appear at any age. They can grow to 8cm or more but most feel like a small marble under the skin.

What you can do?

Although healthy breast tissue often feels lumpy, a new lump or any change in the breasts should be looked at by a doctor. Treatment may include monitoring for changes in the size or feel, a biopsy to evaluate it or surgery to remove it.

A fibroadenoma needs to be removed only if there’s doubt about whether it’s benign or if it’s so large it makes you uncomfortable.

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Most likely to be a skin tag What is it exactly? It looks like a short, narrow “stalk” of skin and usually appears in the underarm area and on the neck, upper chest and eyelids. Skin tags can be darker than your normal skin colour and can also be red, especially if they become irritated from rubbing against clothing.

What you can do

Most skin tags don’t require treatment, but if they often become irritated due to friction, catch on your clothing or are bothersome in appearance, a doctor can remove them by freezing them off.


Most likely to be a lipoma What is it exactly? A fatty lump just under the skin that moves easily when pressure is applied. Lipomas can appear anywhere on the body but are commonly found on the thighs, arms, neck, shoulders, back and abdomen.

They are slow-growing and usually harmless.

What you can do

It’s best to have any lump checked by your GP, who might need to confirm it’s a lipoma by sending you for an ultrasound.

Treatment generally isn’t necessary, but if the lipoma bothers you, is painful or grows, it can always be surgically removed.