Curettage and electrodesiccation

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on June 1, 2022.

About 5.4 million basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell skin cancers are diagnosed in the United States each year, according to the American Cancer Society. For patients diagnosed with these types of skin cancer, a doctor may recommend a treatment known as curettage and electrodesiccation (C&E).

This guide provides an overview of what to expect from the procedure.

What is curettage and electrodesiccation?

Curettage and electrodesiccation is a medical procedure that removes abnormal skin growths—both cancerous and precancerous tissue.

Curettage means to scrape away cells or skin with a small instrument known as a curette, a handheld tool with a sharp looped edge.

Electrodesiccation is a technique that uses electrical currents to cauterize or seal the skin, removing remaining cancer cells and stopping any bleeding.

Why is C&E performed?

The C&E procedure may be used if a doctor suspects skin cancer or knows the patient has precancerous cells. Skin taken during the C&E procedure is tested for cancer.

A C&E is an appropriate treatment for superficial cancers, meaning those on the top layers of skin that haven’t gone any deeper into the body.

What can I expect during the procedure?

Curettage and electrodesiccation is an outpatient procedure, typically performed in a doctor’s office rather than in a hospital. While it may sound uncomfortable, a local anesthetic is used to numb the area.

  • During the procedure, the doctor first cleans the skin then applies a numbing medication.
  • Once the area is numb, the doctor uses a curette to scrape away abnormal cells, which are sent to a laboratory for testing.
  • Once the tissue has been removed, the skin is cauterized to kill off any remaining cancer cells and stop the bleeding.
  • The doctor may need to repeat the process several times. If there’s more than one area of concern, a C&E may be performed on multiple parts in one treatment.
  • When finished, the doctor covers the wound with a bandage and provides after-care instructions on how often to change the dressing, when and how to clean the wound, and when to return for a follow-up appointment. There are typically no stitches required.

Generally, you’ll need to wash the wound twice per day with clean water, then cover it with petroleum jelly and a nonstick bandage.

What are the risks?

Though every medical procedure has some risk involved, those for a C&E are minimal.

One consideration is that it often leaves a scar. Your doctor may provide more details on how to reduce scarring.

A C&E may leave a wound that takes time to heal. The wound needs to be cared for to prevent discomfort, infection and bleeding. Call your care team at any point during the recovery process if you suspect something isn’t right. Signs of infection include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Warmth around the treated area
  • Red streaks or pus
  • Fever

What happens next?

After the procedure, the abnormal tissue is examined under a microscope, so that it may be confirmed as cancerous, precancerous or benign. If additional treatment is needed, the doctor may discuss this with you during your follow-up appointment.

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