What Is a Skin Biopsy and Who Would Need One?
In a biopsy, a doctor or surgeon takes a sample of a lump, a sore, or tissue from a person’s body so experts can examine it and find out exactly what it is.
Doctors may order skin biopsies to help diagnose or monitor possible health problems like these:
- skin rashes or conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis
- skin infections, such as staph
- diseases, such as cancer
- other medical problems that may affect the skin, such as a metabolic disorder (where there’s too much or too little of a hormone or other body chemical in a person’s system)
In a skin biopsy, the doctor removes a tiny piece or all of the area that’s affected. This skin tissue is then treated with a special chemical to preserve the sample and sent to a lab, where an expert will examine it under a microscope to determine what it is. Once that is known, your doctor can provide the right treatment for you.
You won’t need to do anything special to prepare for a skin biopsy. Depending on where the biopsy is, you may need to change into a hospital gown.
A skin biopsy can be done several ways, including the shave method, the punch method, and as an incisional biopsy.
The shave method of skin biopsy is similar to shaving hair from your body. The skin has many layers and the doctor will shave the very top, which will heal itself in no time. It’s a quick procedure and you will be home within hours.
First, a nurse or doctor numbs the skin by injecting a local anesthetic. The doctor then shaves off the top layer of skin with a surgical knife. He or she may shave off the entire problem area or just a small sample.
Afterward, the doctor will apply pressure to the area with a cotton ball or gauze to stop any bleeding. Then it’s cleaned and bandaged, and you’re sent on your way with instructions to keep the area clean and safe.
A punch biopsy takes a sample of the affected skin area so doctors can learn what is going on. Because the piece of skin that’s removed is very small, you’ll heal quickly.
A skin punch biopsy starts with the doctor or nurse injecting local anesthetic to numb the area so you don’t feel anything. The punch itself is like a mini cookie cutter that the doctor presses into the skin and turns. It makes a little circle in the top layer of skin that the surgeon can then lift up and snip off.
The doctor then applies pressure using a cotton ball or gauze to stop any bleeding (there’s not a lot of bleeding after this procedure) and usually closes the area with one or two stitches. After that, the area is cleaned and bandaged to keep it safe from germs.
With this type of biopsy, the doctor cuts into the affected area of skin and removes a sample of tissue. You’ll get an injection to numb the area first. Afterwards, the doctor will sew up the cut or tape it closed with small strips of clear, sticky tape.
If you get stitches, your doctor will remove them in a week or so. If the doctor closes the cut with tape, try to keep it on as long as possible. Covering the tape with a bandage can help.
Your doctor will probably schedule a follow-up appointment to check on how your cut is healing and remove the tape then. But don’t worry if it falls off on its own after a few days.
After any type of biopsy, the skin might be tender. So follow the doctor’s instructions for caring for the area while it heals.
A biopsy is a safe procedure. As with any such procedure, there’s a slight risk of infection or bleeding. Let your doctor know if the area doesn’t seem to be healing, becomes red, or feels sore.
You should have the results of the biopsy in a week or so. Doctors will let you and your parents know what they find, but don’t sweat the results. Having a biopsy means getting some answers and the care you need, whatever the problem.
Lots of people who hear the word “biopsy” think “cancer.” But getting a biopsy doesn’t always mean that your doctor thinks you might have cancer. If you need a biopsy because of a tumor, lump, or mass, don’t hit the panic button. Often, a lump or bump is benign, which means it’s not cancerous.
If you’re worried, talk with your doctor, your parents, or a child life specialist.
Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: July 2012