Also known as solar keratosis, actinic keratosis is a prevalent skin condition with over 3 million new cases each year in the United States. An actinic keratosis starts as a rough, slow-growing, scaly patch on the skin, often found on areas with the greatest exposure to the sun, such as the face, ears, scalp, arms, neck or back of the hands. They occur due to years of sun exposure.
A precancerous skin lesion, actinic keratosis grows slowly and can turn into a squamous cell carcinoma—a potentially life-threatening skin cancer if left untreated. Anyone can get actinic keratosis, but it is most common in people who:
- Work outdoors
- Are older than 40
- Don’t use sunscreen
- Live in a sunny place
- Have light-colored eyes
- Have naturally red or blonde hair
- Have a weakened immune system
- Tend to freckle or burn when exposed to sunlight
- Have a history of a lot of sun exposure or sunburns
Symptoms of Actinic Keratosis
Not all actinic keratoses look the same, but some indicators include:
Actinic Keratosis Diagnosis
Diagnosis of actinic keratosis begins with an examination of your skin. Your doctor may ask you questions, such as when you first noticed it and if it has changed. Most often, an actinic keratosis is diagnosed based on a clinical exam. However, sometimes your doctor may order additional tests, such as a skin biopsy. Before the biopsy, the doctor will numb the area where they will take a small sample of your skin to analyze under a microscope.
Actinic Keratosis Treatments
Actinic keratosis should be treated to ensure they do not develop into squamous cell carcinomas. One option for this is medicated creams or gels. These products can cause redness, a burning sensation or scaling. Other options are surgical and include:
Freezing is the most common method used to remove an actinic keratosis. The doctor will freeze the area with liquid nitrogen, which destroys the precancerous cells and causes the spot to peel away eventually.
The doctor uses a curet, a device to scrape off the spot.
In this procedure, the doctor numbs the area before using a pencil-shaped instrument that uses an electric current to destroy the spot.
Growing in popularity, the doctor will use an ablative laser to destroy the actinic keratosis.
In this method, the doctor applies a light-sensitive solution to the spot then exposes it to a special light that destroys the actinic keratosis.