Actinic keratosis: Overview
Also called solar keratosis
An AK forms when the skin is badly damaged by ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or indoor tanning. Most people get more than one AK. When you have more than one AK, you have actinic keratoses, or AKs.
Anyone who has many AKs should be under a dermatologist’s care. Most people who have many AKs continue to get new AKs for life. AKs are considered precancerous. Left untreated, AKs may turn into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
By seeing a dermatologist for checkups, the AKs can be treated before they become skin cancer. If skin cancer does develop, it can be caught early when treatment often cures skin cancer.
Actinic keratosis: Signs and symptoms
Signs of actinic keratosis
The following photographs show signs of actinic keratoses (AKs).
If you see any of these signs on your own skin, you should see a dermatologist. Left untreated, AKs may turn into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. People who have AKs also have a higher risk of getting other types of skin cancer. When found early, most skin cancers can be cured.
Symptoms of actinic keratoses
Most people who get AKs do not have any symptoms. They only notice changes to their skin. Symptoms can occur. A few symptoms to watch for are:
- Rough-feeling patch on skin that cannot be seen.
- Rough patch or growth that feels painful when rubbed.
- Itching or burning.
- Lips feel constantly dry.
Actinic keratosis: Now you see it, now you don’t
An AK can come and go. An AK can appear on the skin, remain for months, and then flake off and disappear. The skin can suddenly feel smooth. Many AKs re-appear in a few days to a few weeks. They often re-appear when the person goes outdoors without sun protection.
Even if an AK does not re-appear, you should see your dermatologist. AKs form when the top layer of skin is badly damaged. You can get more AKs. If the damage grows deeper, skin cancer can develop.
Actinic keratosis: Who gets and causes
People who are most likely to get AKs have one or more of the following traits:
- Fair skin.
- Hair color is naturally blond or red.
- Eyes are naturally blue, green, or hazel.
- Skin freckles or burns when in the sun.
- 40 years of age or older.
- Weak immune system, which has many causes including:
- Have a medical condition that makes the skin very sensitive to UV rays, such as:
- Work with substances that contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), such as coal or tar. Roofers have a higher risk of getting AKs because they work with tar and spend their days outdoors.
AKs usually appear after age 40. People who live in places that get intense sunlight all year, such as Florida and Southern California, may get AKs earlier. AKs also often appear much earlier in people who use tanning beds and sun lamps.
What causes AKs?
Ultraviolet (UV) rays cause AKs. Most people get exposed to UV rays from being outside during the day or using tanning beds.
When UV rays hit our skin, the rays damage our skin. When we are young, the body can repair some of the damage. Over time, the damage accumulates, and the body is less able to repair itself. We eventually see UV-damaged skin. If UV rays continue to hit the skin, people get AKs.
Actinic keratosis: Diagnosis and treatment
How do dermatologists diagnose actinic keratosis?
Dermatologists diagnose an actinic keratosis (AK) by closely examining the skin.
If your dermatologist finds a growth that is thick or looks like skin cancer during the exam, your dermatologist will likely perform a skin biopsy. Your dermatologist can safely perform a skin biopsy during an office visit.
When found early and treated, skin cancer is often cured.
How do dermatologists treat AKs?
There are many treatments for AKs. Some treatments your dermatologist can perform in the office. Other treatments you will use at home. The goal of treatment is to destroy the AKs. Some patients receive more than one type of treatment. Treatments for AKs include:
- Cryotherapy: Destroys visible AKs by freezing them. The treated skin often blisters and peels off within a few days to a few weeks. This is the most common treatment. When the skin heals, you may see a small white mark.
- Chemical peel: This is a medical chemical peel. You cannot get this peel at a salon or from a kit sold for at-home use. This strong peel destroys the top layers of skin. The treated area will be inflamed and sore, but healthy new skin will replace it.
- Curettage: Your dermatologist carefully removes a visible AK with an instrument called a curette. After curettage, your dermatologist may use electrosurgery to remove more damaged tissue. Electrosurgery cauterizes (burns) the skin. New healthier skin will appear.
- Laser resurfacing: Much like a chemical peel, a laser can remove the surface layer of the skin. This destroys AK cells. After treatment, the skin will be raw and sore. The skin heals within 1 or 2 weeks, revealing healthier new skin.
Your dermatologist may prescribe a medicine that you can use at home to treat AKs. Medicines that dermatologists prescribe include:
- 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) cream: This is chemotherapy that you apply to the skin. It causes temporary redness and crusting. Patients typically apply 5-FU twice daily for 2 to 4 weeks. A person who has lots of damaged skin may need to use 5-FU longer. 5-FU causes sun-damaged areas to become raw and irritated. As the skin heals, healthy skin appears. Another treatment such as cryotherapy may be necessary to treat thick AKs.
Researchers continue to look for new treatments for AKs. No one treatment works on all AKs.
Some people get only a few AKs. These AKs often clear with treatment.
If you have many AKs, you need to be under a dermatologist’s care. AKs form in skin that has been badly damaged by the sun or indoor tanning. This damage often causes people to get new AKs for life. Left untreated, AKs may turn into squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. With frequent checkups, this skin cancer can be found early and removed. When found early and treated, most skin cancers can be cured.
Your dermatologist will tell you how often you should return for checkups. Some patients need a checkup once every 8 to 12 weeks. Others return for a checkup 1 or 2 times per year.
You should keep every appointment. If skin cancer develops, the sooner it is detected and removed, the better the outcome.
Actinic keratosis: Tips for managing
An actinic keratosis (AK) forms on skin that has been badly damaged by ultraviolet (UV) rays. The sun and indoor tanning expose us to these harmful rays. If you have been diagnosed with AKs, dermatologists recommend the following:
Protect your skin from the sun. By protecting your skin from the sun, you can help prevent new AKs from forming. This also will help make your treatment more effective. Dermatologists offer these tips to their patients who have AKs:
- Avoid the midday sun. You can do this by scheduling outdoor activities for earlier in the morning (before 10 a.m.) and later in the afternoon (after 2 p.m.).
- Slather on sunscreen every day — even on cloudy days and in the winter. Apply sunscreen to all skin that clothing will not cover.
- Protect your lips. Apply a lip balm that contains sunscreen. The lip balm also should offer an SPF of 30 or greater and UVA/UVB protection.
- Protect your skin with clothing. Whenever possible wear:
To see how well your clothes will protect you, hold each garment in front of bright light. If you see light through the cloth, harmful light from the sun can penetrate the cloth. You should select another garment. You also could wear that garment but apply sunscreen first to the skin that the garment will cover.
Do not use tanning beds or other indoor tanning devices. Tanning beds and sun lamps emit UV rays that can be stronger than the rays from the sun. This can cause new AKs.
Check your skin as often as your dermatologist recommends. If you notice a growth on your skin that has any of the following traits, contact your dermatologist right away:
- Starts to itch or bleed.
- Becomes noticeably thicker.
- Remains after treatment.
- Changes in size, shape, or color.
Keep all appointments with your dermatologist. Left untreated, AKs can turn into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. With early detection and treatment, skin cancer has a high cure rate.
Because AKs develop on skin that has been badly damaged by UV rays, you also have a higher risk for developing other types of skin cancer, including melanoma. Keeping your appointments helps to find skin cancer early when a cure is likely.
Realize that new AKs may form. AKs form on badly damaged skin. Some people will continue to develop new AKs for life, even when they protect their skin from the sun. This does not mean that sun protection and treatment are not working.