Find out more about this skin condition that causes a rough, scaly patch after years of ultraviolet exposure from the sun or indoor tanning.
An actinic keratosis (ak-TIN-ik ker-uh-TOE-sis) is a rough, scaly patch on the skin that develops from years of sun exposure. It's often found on the face, lips, ears, forearms, scalp, neck or back of the hands.
Also known as a solar keratosis, an actinic keratosis grows slowly and usually first appears in people over 40. You can reduce your risk of this skin condition by minimizing your sun exposure and protecting your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Left untreated, the risk of actinic keratoses turning into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma is about 5% to 10%.
Actinic keratoses vary in appearance. Signs and symptoms include:
It can be difficult to distinguish between noncancerous spots and cancerous ones. So it's best to have new skin changes evaluated by a doctor — especially if a scaly spot or patch persists, grows or bleeds.
An actinic keratosis is caused by frequent or intense exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds.
Anyone can develop actinic keratoses. But you're at increased risk if you:
If treated early, actinic keratosis can be cleared up or removed. If left untreated, some of these spots might progress to squamous cell carcinoma — a type of cancer that usually isn't life-threatening if detected and treated early.
Sun safety is necessary to help prevent development and recurrence of actinic keratosis patches and spots.
Take these steps to protect your skin from the sun:
Use sunscreen. Before spending time outdoors, even on cloud days, apply a broad-spectrum water-resistant sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, as the American Academy of Dermatology recommends.
Use sunscreen on all exposed skin, and use lip balm with sunscreen on your lips. Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outside and reapply it every two hours — or more often if you're swimming or perspiring.
Sunscreen is not recommended for babies under 6 months. Rather, keep them out of the sun if possible, or protect them with shade, hats, and clothing that covers the arms and legs.
Your doctor will likely be able to determine whether you have an actinic keratosis simply by examining your skin. If there's any doubt, your doctor may do other tests, such as a skin biopsy. During a skin biopsy, your doctor takes a small sample of your skin for analysis in a lab. A biopsy can usually be done in a doctor's office after a numbing injection.
Even after treatment for actinic keratosis, your doctor might suggest that you have your skin checked at least once a year for signs of skin cancer.
An actinic keratosis sometimes disappears on its own but might return after more sun exposure. It's hard to tell which actinic keratoses will develop into skin cancer, so they're usually removed as a precaution.
If you have several actinic keratoses, your doctor might prescribe a medicated cream or gel to remove them, such as fluorouracil (Carac, Fluoroplex, others), imiquimod (Aldara, Zyclara), ingenol mebutate or diclofenac (Solaraze). These products might cause redness, scaling or a burning sensation for a few weeks.
Many methods are used to remove actinic keratosis, including:
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or primary care doctor. In some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred directly to a specialist in skin diseases (dermatologist).
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your appointment. For actinic keratoses, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Questions your doctor may ask you include:
January 13th, 2021