Are cysts dangerous?

Written by: Dr Dev Shah
Edited by: Cal Murphy

We can get a myriad of different types of lumps, bumps, and spots on our skin. Cysts are one of the commonest lumps that we can develop. What defines a cyst, what are the most common types, and can they be a danger to our health? Acclaimed dermatologist Dr Dev Shah is here to explain.

Cysts are invaginations, or lumps, under the skin that fill up with dead skin or fluid. They are separated from surrounding tissue by a membrane, forming a sac. These sacs may contain air, fluids, or keratin. Cysts can occur anywhere on the body and are almost always benign (not cancerous).


What are the most common types of cyst?

Types of skin cyst include:

  • Epidermoid cysts – these are lined with skin cells (squamous epithelium). Tiny epidermoid cysts are known as ‘milia’ and can be easily treated with a needle tip.
  • Pilar cysts – these form from hair follicles and may be lined hair follicle cells. They are mainly found on the scalp and scrotum.
  • Sebaceous cysts – are quite rare and are always multiple and found mainly on the chest and upper body.

In general, cysts have a tiny hole on the skin where they can discharge. It can be difficult to see the hole. It’s really important that you do not try to squeeze cysts as it makes subsequent surgery and full removal more difficult for the surgeon.


Are there any types of cyst that can be dangerous if not treated?

If you have cysts with multiple lumps and openings then you may need to see a dermatologist as they may be linked with other more serious medical conditions and need early treatment to prevent progression.

If cysts are present on your body and they are small, i.e. less than 1 cm, treatment may not be necessary; they can generally simply be monitored if they are not causing any problems. However, when they start to grow, then it is worth having them removed before they get too big. Having early treatment will reduce the size of the final scar.

Cysts can become painful and get infected. If this happens, then your doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics, wait for the cyst to settle and then schedule surgery to have it removed when the skin has become less inflamed.

It is important to ask your surgeon what method of cyst excision they are choosing. Some surgeons try to make tiny cuts and squeeze the cyst out. This method only works for very small cysts. The problem is that it can leave some of the cyst lining behind, which may lead to a recurrence of the cyst later on.

Ask your surgeon to ensure the whole lining is removed, this will prevent the cyst returning in the future!

What is the difference between a cyst and a lipoma? Find out here!

Visit Dr Shah’s Top Doctors profile to learn more about skin conditions or to book an appointment!

By Dr Dev Shah

Dr Dev Shah is an acclaimed consultant dermatologist based in London and an expert in skin cancer, Mohs surgery and vitiligo. At Hillingdon Hospital, he is the lead clinician for skin cancer, and set up the Mohs surgery service now offered there. He trained at the award-winning dermatology department in Cardiff, and is involved in research with the Cardiff Microneedle Team. At his private practice in north-west London, Dr Shah takes pride in delivering top-quality patient care, adapting treatment to not only each individual, but also their particular pathology or problem. 

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