What is actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratosis: Overview

Actinic keratosis is a skin growth caused by sun damage. It can turn into skin cancer, but this isn't common. Actinic keratoses, also called solar keratoses, are small red, brown, or skin-colored scaly patches. They are most common on the scalp, face, neck, hands, and forearms.

Your doctor can remove these growths by freezing or scraping them off or by putting medicines on them.

Actinic keratosis

Actinic keratosis, also called solar keratosis, is a skin growth that develops in sun-exposed skin, especially on the face, hands, forearms, and neck. It occurs most often in people with lighter skin.

Actinic keratoses are persistent, noticeable, small red, brown, or skin-colored patches that may become scaly, scabbed, or crusted. The patches may itch, burn, or sting.

Actinic keratosis may become skin cancer, but this isn't common. Actinic keratoses may be treated with cryotherapy (freezing), curettage (shaving), photodynamic therapy (a treatment combining light and medicine), or medicines that are put on the skin.

Will actinic keratosis become cancer?

Actinic keratosis may turn into skin cancer, but this isn't common. There is no way to find out whether actinic keratosis will progress to squamous cell carcinoma or how fast this might occur.

People who have a weak immune system have a higher risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma.

What are the symptoms of actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratoses are small, reddish or brownish patches that don't go away. They most often occur on the head, neck, or hands. But they can be found on other areas of the body. Usually more than one is present. They may have a rough texture. And they may itch, burn, or sting.

How is actinic keratosis treated?

Your doctor may treat it by freezing it, using medicines on it, or shaving it off. Or they may use medicine that's activated with light (photodynamic therapy). Sometimes a laser or chemicals are used to destroy the top layer of skin.

How can you help prevent actinic keratosis?

  • To help prevent getting another actinic keratosis:
    • Always wear sunscreen on exposed skin. Make sure to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Use it every day, even when it is cloudy.
    • Wear long sleeves, a hat, and pants if you are going to be outdoors for a long time.
    • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., the peak time for UV rays.
    • Do not use tanning booths or sunlamps.

How is actinic keratosis diagnosed?

Actinic keratosis is diagnosed through a skin exam. Your doctor may use a bright light or magnifying lens to look for growths, moles, or lesions. The scalp is checked by parting the hair. If there is a chance of cancer, your doctor may take a sample of your skin and test (biopsy) it.

How can you care for yourself when you have actinic keratosis?

If you've had an actinic keratosis removed, follow your doctor's instructions. If you didn't get instructions, wash around the area with clean water 2 times a day. Until the area has healed, you may cover it with a thin layer of petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, and a nonstick bandage.

What is actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratosis, also called solar keratosis, is a skin growth that develops in sun-exposed skin. The growth often happens on the face, hands, forearms, and neck. It occurs most often in people with lighter skin.

Actinic keratosis: When to call

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You have symptoms of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the area.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.
  • You see a change in your skin, such as a spot, growth, or mole that:
    • Grows bigger. This may happen slowly.
    • Changes color.
    • Changes shape.
    • Starts to bleed easily.
  • You have a wound that does not heal.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.