Port wine stains and Sturge-Weber syndrome

Harry now after laser treatment

Harry as a baby

A type of birthmark called a port wine stain on the face of a newborn child is symptomatic of Sturge-Weber syndrome, a condition involving the vascular and central nervous system. Three out of one thousand children are born with a port wine stain but only 8% of these will have Sturge-Weber syndrome.

What is a port wine stain?
A port wine stain - named for its colour - is a flat, pink, red, or purplish lesion (area of tissue with impaired function as a result of physical damage by disease or wounding) in this instance caused by blood vessel abnormality, capillary malformation of the skin.

The stains associated with Sturge-Weber syndrome are found mainly on the face and follow the trigeminal nerve, the fifth and largest cranial nerve, which splits into three divisions: opthalmic area (upper eyelid and forehead); maxillary area (cheek and upper eyelid); and mandibulary area (lower cheek, lower lip and chin).

It is thought that when the opthalmic area is involved the infant is at a greater risk of having Sturge-Weber syndrome.

The psychological problems associated with such a birth mark are well documented and can include poor self image, lack of confidence and problems with social interaction.  Professional counselling can help by approaching psychological difficulties in adjustment and assist the person to work out their problems. Professional and registered organisations and groups can also provide support.

Management and treatment
Port wine stains can be unsightly and are often of cosmetic significance. There are several options available to the individual and the individuality of each sufferer needs to be taken into consideration.

Covering it up
Many people choose to do this and the desired look is often achieved through trial and error.  Camouflage make up is available on prescription and can be obtained through a General Practitioner or Dermatologist. Some hospitals offer a support service through the occupational therapy or specialist burns department. Other voluntary organisations such as the Red Cross may also be able to offer assistance. Some people may achieve the look they want through trial and error and experimenting with over the counter every day cosmetics. It is worth asking around as some companies have trained staff in this area and are sensitive to the individuals needs.

Laser treatment
Advances have been made in laser technology over the past ten years and people with port wine stains can be treated from as young as six months of age.  A laser is a device that produces a thin beam of light in which high energies are concentrated. In surgery lasers can be used to remove certain types of birth mark without damaging delicate tissue.

Imagine a red ballon (the blood vessels) inside a white ballon (the skin). The laser passes through the white ballon, leaving it intact while zapping out the red ballon. The abnormal network of vessels would be destroyed, leaving the normal overlaying tissue and skin surface unscarred.

Response to treatment depends on the individual`s age, skin type and the laser energy dose.

written by Jill Sheldrake