Port-Wine Stain (Nevus Flammeus) In Babies: What Parents Need To Know

Port-wine stains are usually easy to spot – they’re red or purplish-red birthmarks. But where do they come from? Will they fade away with time? And if baby has one, should you be concerned? Let’s dive in and answer these and other questions on port-wine stains.

What is a port-wine stain? What does it look like?

A port-wine stain is a flat birthmark that looks like spilled wine, which appears on about 3 in 1,000 babies at birth. The scientific name for a port-wine stain is nevus flammeus.

Port-wine stains appear equally often on babies of all skin colors.

  • On babies with lighter skin, the mark looks bright red, deep red, or purplish-red.
  • On babies with darker skin, the mark looks purplish-red or reddish-brown.

The stains tend to start out smaller, but get bigger and darker as baby grows. Most of the time, though, they only spread across one side of the body.

Usually, they appear on the face, neck, arm, or leg. But they could appear anywhere on the body – including the scalp, where they can be harder to spot.

What causes a port-wine stain?

Port-wine stains appear when some of baby’s blood vessels – tiny ones called capillaries – don’t form properly under the skin. (That’s why port-wine stains are sometimes called capillary malformations.)

But researchers don’t yet know what causes the blood vessels to form that way.

They also haven’t found any way to stop this blood vessel malformation from happening.

But rest assured – scientists do know that nothing you do during pregnancy can cause baby to develop a port-wine stain.

Will a port-wine stain go away?

Because of the way they’re formed, port-wine stains are permanent – meaning they won’t go away on their own. But there are ways to treat and remove the stains.

Dermatologists can use a laser therapy treatment on the stain to target the blood vessels that didn’t properly form.

The targeted heat and light from the laser causes the stain to fade or disappear, without significantly damaging the skin.

  • Sometimes, the laser destroys the blood vessels that caused the stain, and removes the stain.
  • Most of the time, though, the laser will damage those blood vessels, and fade the stain so it’s less noticeable. But it won’t get rid of the stain completely.
    • In some cases, the stain will grow darker again over time, and your child may need another set of laser treatments. But that’s less likely the younger your child is.

According to expert dermatologists, it’s easier to treat the stains the younger someone is. Treating a port-wine stain in infancy is best, because the blood vessels and the stain are both smaller, and the stain is lighter.

You can still have your child’s port-wine stain treated later in life. The older someone is (and the longer they’ve had the stain), though, the more difficult it is to remove with the laser treatment.

Learn more about port-wine stain treatment from KSAT News and dermatologist Leonard Bernstein:

Should I be concerned about a port-wine stain?

Usually, port-wine stains are just cosmetic. They affect how your little one looks, but are harmless – they won’t hurt baby or cause pain.

So, most of the time, port-wine stains aren’t a cause for concern.

However, stains near the eyes could raise baby’s risk of developing glaucoma later in life (glaucoma is a condition that damages the nerve in the eye, and causes blindness).

Very rarely, stains on the forehead or eyes could be linked to a brain condition called Sturge-Weber Syndrome.

And port-wine stains can also be a symptom of Klippel-Trenaunay Syndrome, another rare disease that affects how the bones and blood vessels develop.

There’s also the much less serious concern that your little one will be self-conscious about the port-wine stain as they get older (especially as they reach their preteen and teen years).

You may decide that this is reason enough for you to have your little one undergo the laser treatment, since the stain is easiest to treat in babies.

How to care for port-wine stains

Port-wine stains can sometimes cause dry skin or irritation. If you notice this, apply moisturizer to the stain area regularly. And make sure your little one stays well-hydrated!

Other than that, port-wine stains don’t require any special care. Bathe the stain area as normal.

When to talk to a doctor about baby’s port-wine stain?

If you’ve noticed that baby has a port-wine stain and your pediatrician doesn’t mention it, it’s still good to bring the stain to your pediatrician’s attention.

Even though port-wine stains aren’t usually concerning, your pediatrician will likely still want to monitor it in case it could be linked to a more serious condition (especially if it’s around the eyes or otherwise on the face).

You should also talk to your pediatrician if the stain is bleeding, looks infected, or seems like it’s itchy or painful for baby – no matter where it shows up on the body. This is not normal for a port-wine stain.

Port-wine stains vs. similar birthmarks

Does baby have a port-wine stain, or a different birthmark?

There’s another common birthmark called a “salmon patch” – otherwise known as an “angel’s kiss” (when on the face) or a “stork bite” (when on the neck).

This type of birthmark looks very similar to a port-wine stain. But it isn’t permanent and doesn’t grow.

Unlike port-wine stains, “salmon patches” fade away over time, usually before baby’s first birthday. That’s because salmon patches are caused by expansions of the capillaries, which resolve on their own (and not capillaries that weren’t properly formed).

“Salmon patches” are also more common than port-wine stains.

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