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Definition

Stretch marks are red, whitish, or purple streaks in the skin.

Causes

Stretch marks occur when skin is stretched too much over time. The elastic fibers just below the skin tear. This tear leaves streaks of indented skin. The elastic fibers are also weakened by hormones such as cortisone. The hormones are present during pregnancy, with rapid weight gain, or certain medical conditions.

Pregnant Woman

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Stretch marks are common in pregnancy.

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Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of stretch marks include:

  • Gender: female
  • Family history of stretch marks
  • Pregnancy
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Rapidly gaining or losing weight
  • Using corticosteroid medicines
  • Certain medical conditions, such as adrenal gland disorders
Symptoms

Stretch marks are red or purple streaks that are slightly indented. They eventually turn whitish in color. They are most common on the stomach, thighs, buttocks, and breasts, but may also occur in other areas. The stretched skin may also be dry or itchy.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

If the cause of stretch marks is not obvious your doctor may look for other causes. These tests may include:

  • Blood tests for cortisol levels
  • Imaging studies
Treatment

Most stretch marks fade over time without treatment. Some people may want faster results or deeper fading of stretch marks. In general, the current treatments are limited and do not work well.

Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Factors that will affect your treatment options include:

  • Age of stretch marks
  • Convenience of treatment—may require multiple sessions
  • Cost—usually not covered by medical insurance
  • Your expectations

Treatment options include the following:

Medicines

Tretinoin cream may help to lessen the appearance of stretch marks. It is most effective on stretch marks that are less than six weeks old and still red or pink in color.

It should not be used during pregnancy.

Laser Therapy

Laser therapy can stimulate the growth of collagen and elastin. It may decrease the appearance of stretch marks.

Prevention

There are no proven methods for preventing stretch marks. Staying within recommended weight gain guidelines during pregnancy may help. If you are not pregnant, maintain a healthy weight.

Lotions have not been proven to prevent stretch marks. They may be helpful to moisturize and soothe itchiness.

RESOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology
http://aad.org

American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
http://www.acog.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
http://www.sogc.org

Canadian Dermatology Association
http://www.dermatology.ca

References:

Elsaie ML, Baumann LS, Elsaaiee LT. Striae distensae (stretch marks) and different modalities of therapy: an update. Dermatol Surg. 2009;35(4):563-73.

Changes in your body during pregnancy: second trimester. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/pregnancy-newborns/your-body/changes-in-your-body-during-pregnancy-second-trimester.html . Updated February 2011. Accessed September 19, 2013.

Common symptoms, signs and laboratory changes in pregnancy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php . Updated January 23, 2013. Accessed September 19, 2013.

Mom and baby skin care. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: http://www.aad.org/media-resources/stats-and-facts/prevention-and-care/mom-and-baby-skin-care . Accessed September 19, 2013.

Stretch marks (striae). New Zealand Dermatological Society DermNet NZ website. Available at: http://www.dermnetnz.org/dermal-infiltrative/striae.html . Updated June 8, 2013. Accessed September 19, 2013.

Treatments of discomforts of pregnancy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php . Updated August 13, 2013. Accessed September 19, 2013.



Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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