PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Synonym: xanthelasma palpebrum
The appearance is of yellow flat plaques over the upper or lower eyelids, most often near the inner canthus. They represent areas of lipid-containing macrophages but the exact pathophysiology is not known. In other areas of the body the individual lesion would be called a xanthoma; xanthelasma is the most common xanthoma.
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This is usually not a problem, since colour and site are characteristic. They occur a little more often in women than in men and the peak incidence is in the fourth to fifth decades. Once the plaque is established, it tends to remain static in size or grow slowly; it does not regress. Generally, eyelid function remains unimpaired. Ptosis is rare.
- Sometimes syringomas and milia may be misdiagnosed as xanthelasma.
- Syringomas are small papules on lower eyelids and are skin coloured.
- Large milial cysts are white and spherical.
- Xanthomas in other areas may appear more orange-yellow.
- The list of differentials for lipid disorders also needs to be considered.
- Xanthelasma may represent a localised skin condition without any systemic abnormalities of lipoprotein metabolism or may be associated with an increase in the cholesterol-rich beta-lipoproteins (LDLs). See the separate article on Hyperlipidaemia.
- Some patients exhibiting xanthelasma have normal lipid levels but this is less common in younger patients. Although these patients are not at increased risk of carotid atherosclerosis, they are more commonly found to have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease - eg, a higher BMI, waist circumference and LDL-C levels.
- Patients should have their fasting lipid levels checked and those with hyperlipidaemia should have a formal cardiovascular risk assessment using appropriate charts, with measures for prevention of cardiovascular disease as indicated.
- The lesions can be left alone unless the patient wishes them removed for cosmetic reasons (not usually available on the NHS).
- Various options are available including surgical excision (with or without skin grafting for large lesions), chemical treatment, laser treatment and cryocautery. Xanthelasmas may recur after any of these interventions.
- Lipid-lowering medication and diet modification have a limited (if any) effect on these lesions.
The condition itself is harmless. The prognosis depends on any association with underlying lipid abnormalities and cardiovascular risk.
When to refer
Surgical excision and cryocautery may be available in some primary care settings but it is likely that the other treatment options will require secondary care referral.
Further reading & references
- Xanthelasma Image; Online Journal of Ophthalmology
- Xanthomas; DermNet NZ
- Xanthelasma; DermIS (Dermatology Information System)
- Chan CC, Lin SJ, Hwang JJ, et al; Xanthelasma is not associated with increased risk of carotid atherosclerosis in normolipidaemia. Int J Clin Pract. 2008 Feb;62(2):221-7. Epub 2007 Nov 23.
- Elabjer BK, Busic M, Sekelj S, et al; Operative treatment of large periocular xanthelasma. Orbit. 2009;28(1):16-9.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Laurence Knott
Dr Colin Tidy
Dr Olivia Scott