Facial birthmarks are common in infants. Some are caused by excess melanin in the skin while others (called hemangiomas) are created by abnormally rapid growth of the cells that line the blood vessels. Hemangiomas generally appear as deep red or purplish marks. Sometimes, they may protrude in cauliflower shaped growths. These tumors are not cancerous. However, they can be problematic if they keep growing. In particular, they can cause serious health complications including blindness if they are located near the eyes. Hemangiomas near the mouth can also distort the shape of the lips and interfere with functionality.
Minor vascular birthmarks usually fade substantially or disappear completely on their own by the time a child is 7 or so. However, severe hemangiomas can be very disfiguring and may require correction during infancy. There are a number of treatments available for resolving hemangiomas (usually involving corticosteroids). Now, medical researchers are trying to find a more effective combination of therapies with fewer side effects. Recently, laser therapy has been tested in conjunction with propranolol – a beta blocking drug typically used to treat hypertension which has recently been found useful in shrinking hemangiomas.
European Study Results
23 infants with severe, health threatening hemangiomas were included in this initial trial in Germany (Caution: linked page contains a potentially distressing image). Nine of these pediatric patients received just the beta blocker. The other 14 were treated with laser and propranolol. The treatments continued over a period of 6 to 8 months with a follow up period of up to a year and a half.
Propranolol alone showed fairly good results in stopping the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the skin and less success in treating hemangiomas that reached deeper into the tissue. However, two thirds of the patients experienced a return of their facial birthmarks after treatment was stopped. In contrast, only 1 patient who received laser treatment had a recurrence of symptoms. That child only had a single laser session – a factor that researchers believe may have contributed to the rebound of the hemangioma.
Most patients in the study who received the combination treatment experienced fading and flattening of the birthmarks on their skin during treatment. The laser appears to have the effect of causing the tumors to shrink rather than simply stopping their proliferation. Some of the children involved in the study did have side effects including difficulty sleeping, listlessness, diarrhea, or slow heartbeat. More clinical trials will need to be carried out to further explore the safety and effectiveness of this therapy.