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Port wine stains (also known as capillary
malformations) are birthmarks made of tiny blood vessels. They are
quite common and happen in three out of 1000 babies. Some port
wine stains are small, others can be quite large.
Port wine stains can be found anywhere on the
body, but most often appear on the face, neck, arms, legs and
scalp. They can make children feel self conscious or lose their
Normally there are no other related problems
with port wine stains. If the birthmark is on the forehead or
cheek, there is a rare risk of epilepsy or eye problems. If
the birthmark is on the body or limbs, that side may grow to be a
The cause of port wine stains is not fully
understood. It is believed they are due to a problem with the
nerves that control how much the capillaries widen in the area
where the port wine stain mark is. When the capillaries keep
expanding, they allow a larger amount of blood to go into blood
vessels and this causes a stain to form under the skin.
Some children with port wine stain marks on their face may
develop self-esteem problems. If you decide to get treatment for
your child, it should start by the time your child is six months
old. This allows time for a good deal of improvement before your
child starts school.
Some port wine stains can become very dry. It
is important to apply moisturising cream to them.
Laser therapy is currently the best treatment
available for port wine stains. Laser is a high-energy light
source. This type of laser only targets blood vessels. It destroys
the blood vessels that make up the birthmark without injuring the
skin on top. Many treatment sessions are usually needed and it is
not always successful.
However, for every 100 port wine stains
treated with laser treatment:
The feeling of the laser on the skin is a bit like being flicked
with a rubber band. Adults can usually tolerate this quite well for
small areas. An anaesthetic may be needed in children, especially
those with large areas to be treated.
Your child will have significant bruising,
swelling and some discomfort afterwards. A general anaesthetic has
risks, which you should discuss with an anaesthetist.
After having laser, simple pain relief such as icepacks and paracetamol (e.g. Panadol) may be
needed. If blistering or scabbing
occurs, apply vaseline and contact your doctor for antibiotic
ointment such as bactroban to treat the affected area.
Also, call your doctor if the blistering and scabbing starts to bleed.
There are no specific instructions for routine
care of a port wine stain. They may be covered with camouflaging
make-up, for example Dermablend, which you can buy in department
The content for this fact sheet has been
contributed to by the following RCH departments: Dermatology,
Surgery, General Paediatrics. First published January
2004. Updated November 2010.
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