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What is a sebaceous cyst?

A sebaceous cyst is a round, raised lump that develops on your skin, which contains a semi-liquid, and often unpleasant smelling material.

This kind of cyst usually forms on your neck, scalp, face, back and chest, but they can develop anywhere on your body.

Your sebaceous glands produce an oil called sebum and this helps keep your skin and hair follicles healthy. The cysts form under the top layer of skin when the duct or gland becomes blocked or damaged, causing the raised lump.

Sebaceous cysts grow slowly, are not usually painful and are not life threatening, but they can be removed if they are causing you trouble, or if they’re unsightly.

These cysts can also become infected, so if it becomes inflamed, sore to touch and red, see a GP as soon as possible as antibiotics at an early stage can prevent the cyst from becoming an abscess.

What are the symptoms of a sebaceous cyst?

The symptoms of a sebaceous cyst may vary slightly from person to person, but most they are often not painful and relatively small, smooth in appearance and soft to touch.

However, some can grow quite big and become painful. They can also develop in places which may irritate you - for example, on your neck, which can rub against shirt collars or catch on necklaces. If this is the case, speak to a GP about the treatment options available.

Sometimes, when infected, pus inside may drain out, and this can be foul-smelling.

People with all types of skin can develop a sebaceous cyst, so don’t be afraid to seek medical advice if you develop these symptoms.

Sebaceous cyst causes

As we mentioned above, your sebaceous glands produce an oil called sebum, which coats your skin and hair follicles to help them stay lubricated and healthy. The cysts form under the top layer of skin when these ducts or glands becomes blocked or damaged.

This can be as a result of a scratch or a skin condition like acne, or if the hair follicle becomes swollen for another reason. Cysts may also be hereditary, so if someone in your family has had one in the past, you may be more likely to develop one.

When should you see a GP?

The good news is that in most cases, the cyst will be nothing to worry about. However, it can usually be diagnosed through an examination of the affected area if you are worried.

You should also speak to a doctor if:

  • It cannot be moved around when you touch it
  • It is three centimetres or larger in diameter
  • It is showing signs of infection, including redness, tenderness and feeling warm to touch.
  • If you’ve had a cyst removed and it returns

In rare circumstances, you may be referred to a specialist for a more thorough examination, or for tests, to check for signs of any other underlying conditions.

Sebaceous cyst treatment

If a cyst is causing you problems then the best way of treating it is to have it surgically removed. This is a straightforward procedure carried out under local anaesthetic. They do not always need to be removed for medical reasons and instead are most often removed for cosmetic purposes. If it is not causing you any problems, you can probably just leave it alone.

If it is showing signs of infection, treatment will be needed. This may be with antibiotics, or if an abscess has formed it may need to be drained.

Other types of cysts

It is quite common for an epidermoid cyst to be mistaken as a sebaceous cyst, but these are different. Epidermoid cysts form when skin cells don’t shed and instead move deeper in your skin and multiply. They feel much harder and are smaller than sebaceous cysts.

If you have a cyst that has formed on a hair follicle on your scalp, this may be a pilar cyst. Pilar cysts used to be described a sebaceous cyst but it has since been concluded that they do not contain sebaceous fluid, as they develop at the bottom of a hair follicle. They can, however, be removed in the same way.

What should you do if you have a cyst?

If you have a cyst of any type, then it is a good idea to speak to a doctor. They will be able to correctly diagnose the type of cyst that you have and recommend whether further action needs to be taken.

If left alone, the cyst may grow, become uncomfortable or require surgery.

At Push Doctor, you can see a GP online on your laptop, tablet or smartphone. You can do this from home, work or while you are on the go. The video consultation will allow the doctor to see the cyst, so you may want to undertake this in a privacy, depending upon where your cyst is located.

The doctor will listen to your symptoms, ask about your medical history and offer an appropriate treatment or referral if needed.