Actinic Keratosis

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Actinic keratosis (AK), is a dry, scaly, rough-textured spot, patch or lesion that forms on the outer skin. It's caused by cumulative exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, such as sunlight or tanning lamps. AKs usually appear after age 40 or 50 because they take many years to develop. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports more than ten million Americans currently have AK.

According to The American Academy of Dermatology's AK Web site, AKs are considered the earliest stage in the development of skin cancer and can progress to a sometimes fatal type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma (link to squamous cell carcinoma story-wellness channel). The more AKs you have, the greater the chance that one or more will become cancerous. People who have AKs should seek a dermatologist's care.

What to Look For

Anyone who has had prolonged sun exposure can develop AK. But fair-skinned, light-haired, light-eyed people have an even higher likelihood of developing AK, especially if they've spent time in the sun and are older.

Check your skin regularly for any of the following signs of AK, giving special attention to areas that received the most sun exposure, such as your face, ears, lips, scalp, neck, forearms and the back of your hands.

As described by the AAD, newly-developing AKs are too small to be seen and can be detected only by touch. So use both your eyes and fingers to look for:

An area that feels rougher than the surrounding skin. It may feel like sandpaper and have a scaly or warty texture.


  • A cracked, scaly, dry lip.

  • A red bump; scattered, thick red scaly patches; or crusted lesions varying in color from red to brown.

  • A growth that resembles a horn (as a result of the AK growing upward). These "cutaneous horns" range in size from a pinhead to pencil eraser.

If you notice any of these symptoms see a dermatologist right away.

Treatment Options

Since there is no way of predicting whether or not an AK will become cancerous, your AKs should be removed. The Skin Cancer Foundation (www.skincancer.org) describes the following options:


  • Topical medicated creams and solutions-by themselves or in combination with another treatment.

  • Cryosurgery-liquid nitrogen, applied topically to freeze the growths.

  • Chemical peels-usually used for AKs on the face.

  • Laser surgery-a good option for small or narrow areas.

  • Photodynamic therapy-especially useful for face and scalp lesions.

For more information visit The Skin Cancer Foundation, the AAD and The American Cancer Society.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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