Pigmented fundus lesions

The CMGs are guidelines on the diagnosis and management of a range of common and rare, but important, eye conditions that present with varying frequency in primary and first contact care.

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Pigmented lesions of the choroid are a relatively common finding in the course of a routine examination of the fundus. The overwhelming majority are choroidal naevi, which are benign with a low risk of malignant transformation. Congenital Hypertrophy of the Retinal Pigment Epithelium (CHRPE) has distinctive ophthalmoscopic features. Choroidal melanoma is a rare and life-threatening melanocytic cancer that can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from naevus.

Choroidal naevus

  • area of increased choroidal pigmentation

- approx. 20% within the macular region, 70% between macula and equator and 10% between equator and ora serrata

  • low malignant potential (annual rate of malignant transformation of a choroidal naevus estimated to be 1 in 8,845 in a white US population)
  • prevalence reported as 2-7%. Population studies in some ethnicities report a lower prevalence: Hispanics (2.7%), African Americans (0.6%)

Congenital Hypertrophy of the Retinal Pigment Epithelium (CHRPE)

  • benign congenital anomaly of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE)
  • area of increased RPE hypertrophy and hyperpigmentation
  • malignant transformation is extremely rare, although slight enlargement is observed in 46% of those followed up photographically for >3 years

Uveal melanoma

  • 90% are choroidal, 6% arise from the ciliary body and 4% from the iris
  • 1.3-8.6 cases per million per year in European-derived populations
  • rare in Asians and very rare in Africans
  • life-threatening ocular malignancy (risk of metastatic disease)
    • detection and treatment at earliest stage improves prognosis
  • risk of metastases related to:
    • size and location
    • cell type and histopathological features
    • genetic changes (chromosome 3 loss or BAP1 mutation)
  • outcome poor once metastasis occurs; 1 year survival in 10-15%
  • mean age at presentation 60 years. Can occur at any age but rare in
  • childhood

Predisposing factors 

Choroidal naevus

  • prevalence increases with age
  • ethnicity: most common in white people; rare in black people

Choroidal melanoma

  • melanoma arises de novo or from pre-existing choroidal naevus
  • risk factors for choroidal melanoma include: light coloured irides, fair skin, inability to tan, congenital ocular melanocytosis (‘naevus of Ota’) (1:400 lifetime risk of uveal melanoma), uveal melanocytoma, the BAP1 tumour predisposition syndrome, and, rarely, neurofibromatosis
  • the role of sunlight is uncertain, as most UV light is filtered by the lens


Choroidal naevi

  • rarely symptomatic. Blurred or distorted vision can occur with sub-foveolar naevi or when associated with sub-retinal fluid or choroidal neovascular membrane


  • asymptomatic

Choroidal melanoma

  • symptoms include: photopsia, blurred or distorted vision, floaters, or field loss. In 30% of patients, choroidal melanoma is detected (usually by optometrists) before symptoms develop


Choroidal naevus

  • typical naevi are small, flat and grey (though some are amelanotic), with a featureless surface and no sub-retinal fluid
  • atypical naevi are larger and dome-shaped, with or without drusen and/or traces of sub-retinal fluid; orange pigment absent
  • drusen indicate chronicity so that their absence over a domed lesion is suspicious


  • solitary, flat, well-demarcated deeply-pigmented lesion (but may contain discrete non-pigmented areas called lacunae)
  • shape elliptical or irregular
  • may show a narrow non-pigmented line at margins of lesion
  • the CHRPE lesion may (extremely rarely) develop low-grade adenocarcinoma on its surface

Choroidal melanoma

  • small choroidal melanomas are distinguished from naevi by:
    • larger size (i.e., thickness >2 mm and/or largest basal diameter (LBD) >6mm [>4 disc diameters])
    • there is a size overlap between choroidal naevi and choroidal melanomas with the following relative frequencies:
      • LBD 5-6mm: 70 naevi for 1 melanoma
      • LBD >6-7mm: 10 naevi for 1 melanoma
      • LBD >7-8mm: 3 naevi for 1 melanoma
    • clumps of orange pigment (which are hyper-autofluorescent)
    • subretinal fluid, most easily seen on OCT
    • documented growth (which requires sequential colour photography)
  • larger choroidal melanomas are dome-shaped, with more extensive serous retinal detachment. If they break through Bruch’s membrane and RPE, they can develop a mushroom (‘collar stud’) shape, which is almost pathognomic for melanoma
  • about 5% of choroidal melanomas are diffuse (i.e. with a wide base but minimal thickening). These tumours are aggressive and often extend extra-ocularly by the time of diagnosis
  • vitreous haemorrhage is rare, occurring only if the tumour has perforated the retina

Differential diagnosis

Peripheral exudative haemorrhagic chorioretinopathy (‘eccentric disciform’)

Circumscribed choroidal haemangioma

Haemorrhagic detachment of RPE or retina

Age-related macular degeneration

Choroidal metastasis from cancer of lung, breast or other organs

Management by optometrist 

Practitioners should recognise their limitations and where necessary seek further advice or refer the patient elsewhere 

Non pharmacological 

Baseline colour photography is essential, and sequential colour photography
is ideal, for demonstrating or excluding tumour growth

  • if imaging not possible, make careful drawing with measurement,
    using landmarks such as retinal blood vessels and optic disc 

OCT and autofluorescence imaging help to differentiate large naevi from
small choroidal melanomas by demonstrating subretinal fluid and lipofuscin
(orange pigment) respectively

(GRADE*: Level of evidence=low, Strength of recommendation=strong)



Management category

A3 (modified): Urgent (within two weeks, in accordance with the Suspected CANcer pathway, SCAN) referral to ophthalmologist:

  • patients with a suspicious melanocytic choroidal tumour having
    (A) any one of the following:
    • thickness greater than 2.0mm (or LBD greater than 7mm)
    • collar stud configuration
    • documented growth
  • or (B) any two of the following:
    • thickness greater than 1.5mm (or LBD greater than 6mm)
    • orange pigment
    • serous retinal detachment
    • symptoms

B1 (modified): Routine referral to ophthalmologist followed by regular surveillance, which may be shared with ophthalmologist:

  • atypical choroidal naevus
    • greater than 6mm LBD and dome-shaped, with or without drusen and/or traces of subretinal fluid; orange pigment absent

B3 (modified): inform the patient and review at subsequent routine eye examinations:

  • typical choroidal naevus
    • none of the ‘high-risk’ features mentioned above
    • applies even if lesion not previously documented

Inform the patient, but no need for regular surveillance (review if patient attends for another reason)

    • adenomas and adenocarcinomas associated with CHRPE are exceedingly rare

Possible management by ophthalmologist

Choroidal melanoma

  • managed by a supra-regional multidisciplinary team
  • if diagnosis uncertain, options for indeterminate lesions are:
    • close observation in an ocular oncology clinic
    • fine needle aspiration biopsy for cytology, though sampling error may confound the diagnosis
    • genetic analysis (e.g. multiplex ligation-dependent probe amplification, or more recently next generation sequencing) determines whether the melanoma has metastatic potential
  • treatment dependent on tumour size and location and includes:
    • brachytherapy with a radioactive plaque
    • proton beam radiotherapy
    • laser therapy often as an adjunct to radiotherapy
    • surgical resection, trans-sclerally or trans-retinally
    • enucleation
  • postoperative monitoring for ocular complications such as local tumour recurrence, macular oedema, retinal detachment, neovascularisation and glaucoma as well as systemic surveillance for metastases

Evidence base 

*GRADE: Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (www.gradeworkinggroup.org)

Sources of evidence

Augsburger JJ, Corréa ZM, Trichopoulos N, Shaikh A. Size overlap between benign melanocytic choroidal nevi and choroidal malignant melanomas. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2008;49:2823-8

Damato B, Heimann H. Personalized treatment of uveal melanoma. Eye (Lond). 2013;27(2):172-9

Damato EM, Damato BE. Detection and time to treatment of uveal melanoma in the United Kingdom: an evaluation of 2,384 patients. Ophthalmology. 2012;119(8):1582-9

Damato B, Eleuteri A, Taktak AF, Coupland SE. Estimating prognosis for survival after treatment of choroidal melanoma. Prog Retin Eye Res. 2011;30(5):285-95

Kaliki S, Shields CL. Uveal melanoma: relatively rare but deadly cancer. Eye (Lond). 2017;31(2):241-57

Nicholson BD, Oke J, Smith CF, Phillips J-A, Lee J, Abel L, Kelly S, Gould I, Mackay T, Kaveney Z, Anthony S, Hayles S, Lasserson D, Gleeson F. The Suspected CANcer (SCAN) pathway: protocol for evaluating a new standard of care for patients with non-specific symptoms of cancer. BMJ Open 2018;8:e018168

Royal College of Ophthalmologists. Referral pathways for adult ocular tumours March 2019

Shields CL, Manalac J, Das C, Ferguson K, Shields JA. Choroidal melanoma: clinical features, classification, and top 10 pseudomelanomas. Curr Opin Ophthalmol. 2014;25(3):177-85

Shields CL, Furuta M, Berman EL, Zahler JD, Hoberman DM, Dinh DH, Mashayekhi A, Shields JA. Choroidal nevus transformation into melanoma: analysis of 2514 consecutive cases. Arch Ophthalmol. 2009;127(8):981-7

Shields CL, Furuta M, Mashayekhi A, Berman EL, Zahler JD, Hoberman DM, Dinh DH, Shields JA. Clinical spectrum of choroidal nevi based on age at presentation in 3422 consecutive eyes. Ophthalmology. 2008;115(3):546-52

Shields CL, Mashayekhi A, Ho T, Cater J, Shields JA. Solitary congenital hypertrophy of the retinal pigment epithelium: clinical features and frequency of enlargement in 330 patients. Ophthalmology. 2003;110(10):1968-76

Singh AD, Kalyani P, Topham A. Estimating the risk of malignant transformation of a choroidal nevus. Ophthalmology. 2005;112(10):1784-9

Further information

http://www.oculonco.com/ (an online atlas of ocular oncology – password is Ocular Oncology)
http://www.ocularmelanomaonline.org (an online tool for predicting survival after treatment for choroidal melanoma)

Plain language summary

When you have an eye examination, your optometrist will look at the inside of your eye to make sure it is healthy. Sometimes they will spot changes that might need monitoring or more tests. You might be told you have something called a choroidal naevus. This is like a mole on the skin and is found in a part of your eyeball called the choroid. The choroid is the layer of nourishing and supportive tissue between the retina (the part of the eye that receives light and sends images to the brain) and the ‘white’ of the eye. A choroidal naevus cannot be seen from the outside of your eye and usually causes no symptoms. If you do not have professional eye examinations, you may never know you have one. If you have a choroidal naevus your optometrist will check it whenever you have a regular eye examination.

If your choroidal naevus does not look normal, it is called an atypical choroidal naevus. If you have an atypical choroidal naevus, you will be monitored by your ophthalmologist or optometrist through regular eye examinations as there is a small chance it may change into a cancer. They will take photographs of the inside of your eye so that they can see if your choroidal naevus changes or grows over time.

You may have been born with a harmless blemish inside your eye called a Congenital Hypertrophy of the Retinal Pigment Epithelium (CHRPE). This can be confused with a choroidal naevus, but you will not need to be regularly monitored if you have a CHRPE.

Sometimes your optometrist will see a change inside your eye that might be a cancer called choroidal melanoma. Choroidal melanoma is very rare.

If your optometrist thinks you might have developed choroidal melanoma, they will refer you to an ophthalmologist (a specialist eye doctor). You should be seen by the ophthalmologist within two weeks. The ophthalmologist will examine your eye and carry out some tests to see if you have cancer.

If you are diagnosed with choroidal melanoma, you will be offered treatment to reduce the risk of it spreading to other parts of your body and to save as much of your vision as possible. Your treatment will depend on the type of cancer that you have and how advanced it is. More information about choroidal melanoma and different treatments can be found on Macmillan Cancer Support’s website: https://www.macmillan.org.uk/information-and-support/eye-cancer-ocularmelanoma#

Pigmented fundus lesions
Version 3
Date of search 27.02.19 
Date of revision 21.11.19
Date of publication 28.01.20
Date for review 26.02.21
© College of Optometrists 

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