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Cafe Au Lait Spots

  • Author: William D James, MD; Chief Editor: Dirk M Elston, MD  more...
Updated: Feb 05, 2016


Café au lait spots, or café au lait (CAL) macules (CALMs), are hyperpigmented lesions that may vary in color from light brown to dark brown;[1] this is reflected by the name of the condition, which means "coffee with milk." The borders may be smooth or irregular.

The size and number of café au lait skin lesions widely vary and are usually the earliest manifestations of neurofibromatosis.[2] The macules may be observed in infancy, although they are typically very light in infants and can be difficult to appreciate. The skin lesions develop in early infancy, and they may enlarge in size and become obvious after age 2 years.

Café au lait macules are observed in 95% of patients with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), which is the most frequently occurring neurocutaneous syndrome. These spots may also be observed in patients without NF1. Other conditions in which they may be observed include McCune-Albright syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, and Fanconi anemia.

The images below depict various café au lait lesions.

Axillary freckling showing café au lait spots. Axillary freckling showing café au lait spots.
Multiple irregular sized and shaped café au lait l Multiple irregular sized and shaped café au lait lesions.
Café au lait lesions. Café au lait lesions.
Café au lait lesions. Café au lait lesions.


Café au lait spots are caused by an increase in melanin content, often with the presence of giant melanosomes. A significant increase in melanocyte density is noted in the café au lait macules of patients with NF1 compared with patients who have isolated café au lait macules without NF1 involvement. Also, an increase in stem cell factor cytokines is more frequently observed in NF1 café au lait macules than non-NF1 café au lait macules.




United States

In the newborn period, solitary café au lait spots may occur in 0.3% of whites, 3% of Hispanics, and in 18% of blacks.[3] In childhood, solitary café au lait macules occur in 13% of whites and 27% of blacks. Two or more café au lait macules were not observed in any of 4000 white newborns, although they were found in 8% of black newborns. Café au lait spots that confirm the diagnosis of NF1 occur at an estimated frequency of 1 in 3500 persons.[4]


Solitary café au lait spots occur in 0.5% of Arab newborns and in 0.4% of Chinese newborns.[3]


Café au lait spots are more frequently observed in black children.


No sexual predilection is recognized.


Typically, café au lait spots are present at birth, although they may be difficult to appreciate. A Wood lamp may improve the ability to visualize these faint spots. By the time the child is aged 2-3 years, café au lait macules are clearly visible. The size and number of café au lait macules increase with patient age in patients with NF1.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

William D James, MD Paul R Gross Professor of Dermatology, Vice-Chairman, Residency Program Director, Department of Dermatology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

William D James, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Society for Investigative Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Raj D Sheth, MD Chief, Division of Pediatric Neurology, Nemours Children's Clinic; Professor of Neurology, Mayo College of Medicine; Professor of Pediatrics, University of Florida College of Medicine

Raj D Sheth, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Epilepsy Society, American Neurological Association, Child Neurology Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Nazanin Saedi, MD Assistant Professor, Director of Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatology, Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Biology, Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University

Nazanin Saedi, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Society for Dermatologic Surgery

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Robert A Schwartz, MD, MPH Professor and Head of Dermatology, Professor of Pathology, Pediatrics, Medicine, and Preventive Medicine and Community Health, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School; Visiting Professor, Rutgers University School of Public Affairs and Administration

Robert A Schwartz, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, New York Academy of Medicine, American Academy of Dermatology, American College of Physicians, Sigma Xi

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Dirk M Elston, MD Professor and Chairman, Department of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery, Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine

Dirk M Elston, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Kevin P Connelly, DO Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Division of General Pediatrics and Emergency Care, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine; Medical Director, Paws for Health Pet Visitation Program of the Richmond SPCA; Pediatric Emergency Physician, Emergency Consultants Inc, Chippenham Medical Center

Kevin P Connelly, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians, American Osteopathic Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Axillary freckling showing café au lait spots.
Multiple irregular sized and shaped café au lait lesions.
Café au lait lesions.
Café au lait lesions.
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