Skin and Subcutaneous Nodules

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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.

See also: Epidermoid and Pilar Cysts (Sebaceous Cysts) written for patients

Skin nodules are slightly elevated lesions on or in the skin. They are larger than papules - over 5 mm in diameter. The depth of the lesion is more significant than the width. Some are free within the dermis. Some are fixed to skin above or subcutaneous tissue below.

The patient will usually consult because of concern about cosmetic appearance or the possibility of malignancy.

Such lesions are very common but there are numerous causes. It is important to try to define the aetiology.

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Common causes

Less common causes

Rarer causes

The diagnosis may be clear from the presentation:

  • Note the age of the patient.
  • Note the position of the lesion or lesions and any changes.
  • To a considerable extent it is like the surgical task of examination of a lump.
  • Do not forget to enquire after systemic symptoms and general state of health.

Malignancies of the skin tend to occur in elderly people who have much solar damage to the skin; however, melanoma in particular can occur in rather younger people but usually 'sun worshippers'. On the basis that common things commonly occur, the following table will help to differentiate the common lesions:

(sebaceous) cyst
skin surface
brown colour

The less common lesions may also occur but what is most important is not to be blandly reassuring about something that requires attention whilst at the same time not taking biopsies or referring every case that is seen.

Hence, ask questions about red flag features and, if there is any doubt, investigate.[3] 

Causes for concern

  • A nodule in a mole is highly significant and requires excision biopsy in case of malignancy.
  • An elderly patient with a lesion in a sun-exposed area may well have SCC or BCC.
  • A middle-aged or elderly patient who develops widespread skin nodules over a period of a few weeks probably has an underlying carcinoma, especially if unwell and losing weight.
  • Night sweats and itching with skin nodules suggests lymphoma. These are B features. Examine lymph nodes, liver and spleen carefully.
  • Nodulocystic acne is very difficult and probably needs a dermatologist.
  • FBC and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) are basic investigations.
  • Uric acid should be measured if nodules may be gout - eg, on ear lobes or elbows.
  • The appearance of xanthomata is fairly typical. Fasting lipid profile is required.
  • Urinalysis is required if inflammatory or vasculitic skin lumps are suspected:
    • There may be proteinuria if the lumps are associated with systemic and renal disorders.
  • Ultrasound can improve diagnosis for larger lesions.[4] 
  • Excision biopsy is the definitive investigation:
    • Cytology from skin scrapings can be used to diagnose BCCs.
    • Subcutaneous lesions can, depending on site, be removed by endoscopy. This gives a very good cosmetic result and is particularly useful in children.[5] 
  • If malignant melanoma is suspected, urgent referral to a dermatologist should be arranged. Excision in primary care is not recommended.[3] 

The management depends upon the diagnosis, working diagnosis or differential diagnosis. It may be possible just to be reassuring but if there is any doubt, investigations, including biopsy, are required. GPs should refer to a specialist in a timely fashion according to prevailing guidelines.

Further reading & references

  1. Burns T et al; Diagnosis of Skin Disease, Rook's Textbook of Dermatology, 2010
  2. Luba M et al; Common Benign Skin Tumors. Am Fam Physician 2003;67(4):729-38.
  3. Skin cancer - suspected; NICE CKS, June 2009 (UK access only)
  4. Kuwano Y, Ishizaki K, Watanabe R, et al; Efficacy of diagnostic ultrasonography of lipomas, epidermal cysts, and ganglions. Arch Dermatol. 2009 Jul;145(7):761-4. doi: 10.1001/archdermatol.2009.61.
  5. Pricola KL, Dutta S; Stealth surgery: subcutaneous endoscopic excision of benign lesions of the trunk and lower extremity. J Pediatr Surg. 2010 Apr;45(4):840-4. doi: 10.1016/j.jpedsurg.2009.12.016.

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.

Original Author:
Dr Hayley Willacy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Helen Huins
Document ID:
1115 (v24)
Last Checked:
Next Review:

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