Actinic Keratosis (also known as solar keratosis or by the nickname “AKs”) are precancerous lesions that, when left untreated, may turn into skin cancer, typically squamous cell carcinoma. Caused by skin damaged by UV radiation, rarely does an individual only have one AK. In the plural, they are referred to as actinic keratoses.
What are Actinic Keratoses?
As mentioned above, AKs are precancerous lesions that occur in the top layer of skin that has been badly damaged by chronic UV exposure (whether from the sun or indoor tanning). About 10% of actinic keratoses develop into skin cancer.
What do they look like?
AKs are typically crusty or scaly growths on the skin that may be small, felt but not seen, and may appear and disappear over time. Common symptoms include:
*A patch of skin that feels rough or scaly, whether or not that patch is visible
*A rough patch that hurts when it is rubbed
*A rough/scaly patch that itches and/or burns
*On the lips, an area that feels consistently dry
It is not uncommon for such a rough growth/patch to appear, flake-off and disappear, then reappear a few days or weeks later and/or after additional sun exposure.
See images on the AAD website: https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/scaly-skin/actinic-keratosis
Who gets Actinic Keratoses?
The primary cause of AKs is excessive or chronic sun exposure, but there are certain risk factors that put some individuals at higher risk. The main risk factors for AKs include people with fair skin, naturally blond or red hair, blue, hazel or green eyes, freckles, skin that burns easily, 40 years or older, a compromised immune system, and medical conditions that make skin more sensitive to UV rays. Environmental and occupation factors also play a role in the development of AKs, including work with coal/tar, living in an area with a lot of sun (which includes us here in SoCal) or visiting tanning beds.
How is it diagnosed?
If your dermatologist believes that the growth or patch is suspicious, he or she will take a skin biopsy to determine is the lesion is an actinic keratosis, a skin cancer, or a benign growth (non-cancerous). This is typically done in-office at the time of your regular appointment.
How is it treated?
If the biopsy reveals that the lesion is an AK, there are a few typical treatment options. You and your dermatologist can determine which the best option for you is. The most common treatment is cryotherapy. This is a simple, in-office procedure in which the dermatologist will freeze off the lesion with liquid nitrogen. Cryotherapy is non-invasive and does not require anesthesia. Chemical peels, cosmetic lasers, and topical medications may also be used.
More Information on Actinic Keratoses:
American Academy of Dermatology: Actinic Keratosis https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/scaly-skin/actinic-keratosis
Skin Cancer Foundation: Actinic Keratosis http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/actinic-keratosis