Capillary malformation Symptoms & Causes

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There are many different kinds of birthmarks. Some need treatment and some don’t. The most important thing to realize is that a birthmark does not define your child; it’s just another distinguishing characteristic, like the color of his eyes.

And you really don’t need to worry too much about your child’s capillary malformation. Many kids with these kind of birthmarks don’t get any treatment at all, and here at Children’s, we understand the condition—both what it is and what it’s not—and we know when and how to treat it if you decide that’s the way you’d like to go.

What is a capillary malformation?

A capillary malformation—sometimes called a "port-wine stain"—is a flat, red-pink stain on your child's skin that is present at birth.

  • It’s caused by dilated capillaries in the skin that enlarge and darken as your child grows older.
  • It’s mostly a cosmetic problem that often doesn’t need any treatment at all.
  • If it doesn’t go away, and is in a prominent location, you may want to consider laser therapy for your child.

How common are capillary malformations?

They’re uncommon but not rare. About one in every 330 babies is born with a capillary malformation.

When do they appear?

If your baby has a capillary malformation, it’s present at birth, though it may not always be obvious depending on its location.

Where can they appear?

While they’re most commonly found on the head, face or neck, your child can have a capillary malformation anywhere on his body.

He could also have several capillary malformations in different places on his body.

Causes of capillary malformation

Capillaries are the smallest blood vessels in the body and researchers believe that these malformations occur while your child is still in the womb. A capillary malformation means that your child’s capillaries expand, which allows a greater amount of blood to flow through them—this is what causes the staining of the skin.

No known food, medication or activity a mother did during pregnancy can cause her child to have a capillary malformation.

Signs and symptoms of capillary malformation

The only sign of a capillary malformation is the birthmark itself. It’s a reddish-pink stain that usually appears on the face or neck, but can show up anywhere in your child’s body.

A capillary malformation can darken in color and your child's skin can thicken as she ages. Tiny growths (called “blebs”) that bleed easily can appear from the birthmark.

Long-term outlook

There are very few long-term risks of capillary malformations. Despite the fact that the birthmark will grow as your child does, it typically doesn’t cause any serious health problems.

If you decide to treat your child’s capillary malformation, we can help lighten the birthmark with pulsed dye laser

Will my child’s capillary malformation go away?

No. A capillary malformation is a chronic condition, which means that it will grow with your child as he grows. That said, most kids with capillary malformations live normal, healthy lives.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Capillary Malformation

Q: What is a capillary malformation?
A: 
A capillary malformation—sometimes called a "port-wine stain"—is a flat, red-pink stain on your child's skin that is present at birth.

  • It’s caused by dilated capillaries in the skin that enlarge and darken as your child grows older.
  • It’s mostly a cosmetic problem that often doesn’t need any treatment at all.
  • If it doesn’t go away, and is in a prominent location, you may want to consider laser therapy for your child.  

Q: Are there any symptoms of capillary malformations?
A: 
The only sign of a capillary malformation is the birthmark itself. It’s a reddish-pink stain that usually appears on the face or neck, but can show up anywhere in your child’s body.

A capillary malformation can darken in color and your child's skin can thicken as she ages. Tiny growths (called “blebs”) that bleed easily can appear from the birthmark.

Q: Is it painful?
A: 
It can be. A capillary malformation might be painful if it develops growths called vascular blebs, which can bleed.

A capillary malformation can also be painful if it’s covering a deeper vascular anomaly, as is the case in Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome.

Q: Should my child see a vascular anomalies specialist?
A:
 Rarely, a capillary malformation can be a sign of an underlying abnormality. We recommend consulting with a vascular anomalies specialist in a few situations:

  • A capillary malformation over the spinal column can sometimes be associated with spinal abnormalities.

  • A capillary malformation can cover a deeper vascular abnormality involving your child’s arteries, veins or the lymphatic system; in this case, your doctor will see excess growth in these tissues. For an example of this type of abnormality, read about Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome.

  • If the stain covers part of the forehead and upper eyelid, your baby should be evaluated for neurological problems. (Only eight percent of kids with a facial capillary malformation have neurological problems.)

Q: What is the long-term outlook for my child?
A: 
There are very few long-term risks of capillary malformations. Despite the fact that the birthmark will grow as your child does, it typically doesn’t cause any serious health problems.

If you decide to treat your child’s capillary malformation, we can help lighten the birthmark with pulsed dye laser. For more information about laser therapy, see our Treatment section.

Q: Will my child’s capillary malformation go away?
A: 
No. A capillary malformation will grow as your child grows. That said, most kids with capillary malformations live normal, healthy lives.

Q: How do I know if my child has a capillary malformation?
A: 
A physician experienced in diagnosing birthmarks can tell you whether your child has a capillary malformation just by examining the affected area.

Q: What are our treatment options?
A: 
Having a birthmark can be psychologically or socially difficult, and you may decide that you’d like to treat your child’s capillary malformation with laser therapy.

At Children’s Hospital Boston, we use a device called a pulsed dye laser to destroy the abnormal blood vessels in the capillary malformation. Pulsed dye laser is the gold standard of treatment for capillary malformations because it is highly effective and rarely causes any scarring.

Q: What makes Children’s different?
A: Our physicians are bright, compassionate and committed to focusing on the whole child, not just his condition—that’s one reason we’re frequently ranked as a top pediatric hospital in the United States.

We’ve also got the world’s largest Vascular Anomalies Center, home to specialists who diagnose and treat more rare vascular conditions than any other hospital.

We are grateful to have been ranked #1 on U.S. News & World Report's list of the best children's hospitals in the nation for the third year in a row, an honor we could not have achieved without the patients and families who inspire us to do our very best for them. Thanks to you, Boston Children's is a place where we can write the greatest children's stories ever told.”
- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO

Boston Children's Hospital 300 Longwood Avenue, Boston, MA 02115 617-355-6000 | 800-355-7944

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