Lumps and Bumps in Children—What, Why, and When?

What’s that lump on your head?
Or on your neck, or your eye, or your leg?
Usually, nothing to worry about.

“Lumps and bumps occur in some children for no reason at all, not related to what they ate or how much time they spent in the sun,” says Wendy Su, MD, pediatric surgeon at Stanford Children’s Health, who also sees patients on the East Bay as part of our partnership with John Muir Health. “Some will go away by themselves; those that don’t are usually harmless.”

Pediatric surgery is one of the 20+ pediatric specialties and services we are proud to offer through our partnership with John Muir Health.

However, parents should be aware of certain types of lumps or bumps and those they may want their primary care physician to check.

What are lumps and bumps?

Lumps and bumps come in many forms, including:

  • Tumors. Parents biggest worries are typically “is this bump a tumor or is it cancerous?” The vast majority of these superficial tumors are benign (not cancerous). Lipoma (fatty tumor) is a common example. There are many types of such benign tumors; most can be left alone or easily removed if they become bothersome.
  • Cysts. These often arise from appendages to the skin and may be removed if they grow or cause pain, or to prevent infection. Some cysts can be benign tumors, some congenital and some can be all three, but again most can be left alone or easily removed if they become bothersome.
  • Enlarged lymph nodes. Young children’s lymph nodes may get bigger when they have a cold or infection and then go back to normal when the child gets better. But if they’re bigger than an inch or they grow quickly in clumps, they should be checked by your physician.
  • Congenital lesions. There are many types of congenital lesions. A parent may first notice these bumps when they have become infected and either bleed or are painful. Some are superficial, on the surface of the skin. Others may be larger and somewhat deeper; these may be made up of clusters of spongy lymph vessels (called lymphatic malformations). Ultrasound imaging may be used to confirm the diagnosis.
  • Breast lumps. Almost all breast lumps in girls are benign. The most common type is fibroadenoma. It is smooth and rubbery and mobile. Fibroadenomas can be safely observed unless they grow quickly or are causing pain.

Where do they appear?

Lumps and bumps can appear anywhere on the body; they’re most often located on the head or neck. A parent or child may notice them when brushing the hair, or see it move when the child swallows. Bumps may also pop up on the legs or trunk.

It is highly unlikely that the bump is cancerous, but as a general principle see a doctor for any lump or bump that grows rapidly or that shows a sudden change—especially in the neck area.

What should parents do if their child has a bump or lump?

“First, don’t freak out,” says Dr. Su. “And don’t look for answers on the internet—you’ll be overwhelmed with information, most of which is not relevant to your child.” Dr. Su advises that you take a picture of the lump, with a reference point such as a dime or a ruler showing near it. Take another picture in a week or two, to observe any changes in size or appearance. Send the pictures to your physician and make an appointment if there is any rapid change.

The likelihood of the lump being cancerous is very low—fewer than five cases in a thousand are. But if it is cancer, treatment is readily available.

And even though most lumps and bumps are benign, your physician may recommend surgery to remove it to prevent continual growth or infection.

Dr. Su suggests, “When in doubt, see your doctor. I’d much rather have a patient come in to see me for something that turns out to be nothing than to miss something that could be serious.”

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