Acanthosis Nigricans

What is Acanthosis Nigricans?

Acanthosis nigricans is a skin condition appears in the creases of the body as dark patches that typically affect obese people of African and Native American decent. However, it can be congenital and appear at birth, and it can emerge in seemingly healthy individuals.

It can also be caused by a number of conditions including diabetes, prediabetes, Addison’s disease, pituitary gland disorders, hypothyroidism and certain types of cancer. Oral contraceptives and growth hormone therapy can also cause acanthosis nigricans.

What are the Symptoms of Acanthosis Nigricans?

Acanthosis nigricans is characterized by dark downy patches in between folds of skin, under the breasts, arms, and in the groin area. The patches can range in color from light-brown to deep gray or black. Washing and/or applying over-the-counter lotions will not remove the discoloration.

Acanthosis Nigricans Causes

The most frequent cause of the condition is too much insulin in the body. Produced in the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas, this hormone converts incoming carbohydrates into sugars like glucose that the body can use. Too much insulin in the body can’t be used, so it sits in the bloodstream causing high numbers. It also excites skin cells into proliferating, which causes discolored patches on the skin.

The spots are dark brown to black and thick with a velvety feel when touched. Acanthosis nigricans are not contagious, nor are they harmful. Thus, acanthosis nigricans or AN can be the harbinger of future diseases or other health conditions like diabetes later in life.

Medications can cause AN. Birth control pills, thyroid medications, human growth hormones and some steroids used in bodybuilding can cause AN. Basically, the hormones these medications use cause the skin disorder.

Other causes of the skin discoloration are some cancers such as stomach cancer, kidney, liver, and bladder cancers, adrenal gland problems like Addison’s disease, pituitary gland imbalances, low thyroid hormone levels and genetic things like Down’s syndrome.

Others at risk include overweight men as well as women, those who are pre-diabetic in addition to diabetics and those with darker skin such as Islanders or African Americans.

How is Acanthosis Nigricans Treated?

Topical prescription lotions or medications that include 20% urea, salicylic acid, alphahydroxy, vitamin-D, and/or Retin-A can lessen the appearance of dark patches, but they are not highly effective.

Weight loss and maintaining normal insulin levels can make a notable difference. Limiting the intake of sugar and starches and heeding the advice of a nutritionist can naturally lower insulin levels.

Treating Other Conditions

Dark patches may go away after medications for the aforementioned conditions are discontinued at the advice of a healthcare professional.

Likewise, treating conditions that can cause acanthosis nigricans can also decrease or completely eliminate dark patches.

Acanthosis Nigricans Prevention

Technically, there’s no method of preventing the skin discoloration disorder.

Preventing the underlying causes of the disease that manifests in the disorder can be accomplished:

  • If the person is overweight, the individual should aim to lose weight
  • If the person has diabetes or is pre-diabetic, then keeping blood sugar levels even is imperative
  • Get thyroid function under control and keep it there
  • Use another method of contraception
  • Find other methods for whatever hormones such as steroids and human growth hormones are used for
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Last Reviewed:
September 11, 2016
Last Updated:
June 01, 2018
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