Cyst vs. tumor: Differences, and diagnosis

Cyst vs. tumor: Differences, and diagnosis

Tumors and cysts are two growth types. In appearance they can be identical but they have different causes. A doctor can use imaging techniques or take a biopsy to decide whether a person has a tumor or a cyst.

Learn about the difference between the cysts and tumors in this article. We explore the most common forms and explain their triggering conditions.

Cysts vs. tumors

A cyst is a sac of tissue that can form anywhere on the body.
A cyst is a sac of tissue that can form anywhere on the body.

A cyst is a sac of tissue filled with a particular material, such as air or fluid. Tumors are tissue masses which are solid.

Cysts can grow on the body anywhere, including the bones and the soft tissues.

Most cysts are non-cancerous, but certain exceptions do occur. Cysts can feel tender towards contact, and a human can easily move one.

Tumors can grow virtually anywhere in the body too. They continue to grow quickly and are usually firm to the touch.

Cysts and tumors may be in the same organ.

Conditions that cause cysts

Some of the many types of cyst include:

  • Breast cysts: These are fluid-filled sacs that a person can easily move under the skin. A person with many of these cysts has a condition called fibrocystic breasts.
  • Epidermoid cysts: These cysts develop on the top layer of skin, called the epidermis. They can form on the neck, chest, upper back, and scrotum.
  • Hepatic cysts: Hepatic cysts grow in the liver.
  • Pilar cysts: These form in cells at the bottom of hair follicles. The thick fluid inside the cysts often contains keratin, a hard substance that skin cells produce. Pilar cysts usually develop on the scalp.
  • Renal cysts: These grow in the kidneys.
  • Ovarian cysts: These form on the ovaries, usually around the time of ovulation. They are harmless and often cause no symptoms. They sometimes lead to pelvic pain, back pain, and bloating.

There are many other, less common types of cysts.

Conditions that cause tumors

Tumor symptoms
Lipomas are fat cell tumors that often develop in people over 40.

Tumors can either be benign (noncancerous) or cancerous. Typically benign tumors develop in one location, and do not spread.

Malignant tumors grow within one body region and then spread to others. Tumors which are both benign and malignant differ in size.

Many forms of tumor include:

  • Adenomas: These are made of glandular epithelial tissue, which covers the organs and glands. Examples of these tumors include colon polyps, bile duct adenomas, and hepatic adenomas. They can be cancerous but are usually benign.
  • Fibroids: These benign tumors grow on the connective or fibrous tissues. They most commonly develop in, on, or around the uterus.
  • Lipomas: These fat cell tumors often form in people over 40. They are usually soft and located just under the skin. They are almost always benign.
  • Malignant tumors: These can develop anywhere in the body. Sarcomas, for example, develop from connective tissue such as bone marrow. Carcinomas, another common type of malignant tumor, grow from epithelial cells in the colon, liver, or prostate.

Tumors may develop so big they reach into organs and cause pain and other symptoms. The large tumors are normally removed by a surgeon.

All cancerous tumors are usually removed unless they are so close to a vital organ that surgical removal can cause harm that they are impossible to reach.


Cyst and tumor ultrasound scan
A doctor may use an ultrasound to examine a cyst or tumor in more detail.

A doctor can use multiple diagnostic methods to make a distinction between a tumor and a cyst. They’ll start by taking a history of medication, then ask when symptoms began and when they’re most prominent.

It is necessary to keep symptoms synchronized. For example, due to hormonal variations, the cysts can become more noticeable during menstruation.

A doctor should also look, if possible, at the cyst or tumor. They should consider how it feels, its location, colour, and whether any material drains from it.

A doctor can use an ultrasound to look at a cyst or tumor that is deep within the body. Ultrasound imaging may also illustrate whether a lump is hollow, filled with fluid or a set of cells.

For certain cases, a doctor might ask for a biopsy, which will require removing the lump or cells. The biopsy shall be submitted to a research laboratory.

When to see a doctor

Although not all cysts and tumors need treatment, if it tends to develop rapidly a person should have a lump examined.

Other potentially dangerous symptoms include:

  • bleeding from area
  • pain or tenderness
  • inhibited movement
  • an inability to perform daily activities due to the tumor or cyst


Tumors and cysts, though some are harmless, can be a cause for concern sometimes . Cysts are often filled with air, or other cell types, creating a fluid. Tumors are masses of one type of cell.

Anyone with lumps or development should see a doctor. They are able to conduct tests, identify the lump and decide whether a person needs treatment.