Dermatology basics

Dermatologists treat a wide range of issues affecting the skin — your body's largest and fastest growing organ — from dermatitis to skin cancer. Besides diagnosing diseases, dermatologists can prescribe medication or treatment and educate patients on the proper care of their skin, hair and nails. You might see a doctor for acne, a wart, nail fungus or even unexpected hair loss. They may refer patients to other specialists as well, such as a plastic surgeon for certain types of scars. Dermatologist perform the majority of their procedures in the office as outpatient care, instead of at a hospital.

Dermatologists, also sometimes referred to as skin doctors or skin care doctors, undergo an extensive education program, starting with earning a college degree, then going to medical school for a medical doctorate (MD) or doctorate in osteopathy (DO), and ending with a one-year internship and at least a three-year residency. In their dermatology residency program, these specialists learn surgical procedures to remove skin cancer and growths and reduce the appearance of scars. They also learn to inject fillers, such as Botox, for patients desiring a younger appearance. In addition, they're trained to provide lifestyle advice, such as suggesting alternatives to sun tanning.

When to see a dermatologist

Dermatologists perform body checks for skin cancer, and many doctors recommend an annual skin cancer exam. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, about 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to the sun's ultraviolet, or UV, radiation. Those with a history of skin cancer in their family, or individuals who have tanned excessively at any point in life or have experienced intense sunburns, should see a dermatologist. Don't ignore the warning signs of skin cancer.

If you notice any irregularities on your skin, such as a mole that has changed shape, color or size, you should seek medical attention. A dermatologist can help. In addition, you can see a skin doctor to help combat wrinkles and age spots, and for other specialized issues such as removing an ear keloid, a type of scar that looks like a fibrous growth. 

Finding a dermatologist

Ask your general practitioner, family and friends for recommendations, and locate dermatologists through the American Academy of Dermatology's website. Most insurance companies keep a list of providers who accept their insurance and are in your network. Insurance companies also send out a booklet when you start with their insurance, and an updated list of providers will be located on their website. Once you've narrowed your list of dermatologists, be sure to consult Angie's List for member reviews and ratings.

Ask the office for any prospective doctor about the average wait time for an appointment and whether the office is open on weekends or evenings. Although you may just begin with a checkup, some problems require immediate attention. When choosing your dermatologist, you should consider location and the distance from your home and work, as well as general accessibility.

Bring identification, insurance cards and a list of questions for the doctor. Bring the referral paperwork, if required. If you take any prescriptions or nutritional or dietary supplements, bring a list of these with you. Insurance companies have specific guidelines for what services they cover. Check on these before going to the dermatologist's office.

Most importantly, check to make sure the doctor has a license to practice dermatology in your state.

Pediatric dermatology

Children are also susceptible to skin problems and may need a specialist. Pediatric dermatologists diagnose and prescribe treatment for conditions that affect the skin, hair, nails or scalp.

These dermatologists may also provide surgical treatment for children to address birthmarks and small cysts. They also can perform skin biopsies.

READ MORE: Angie's List Guide to Pediatric Dermatology

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