Actinic keratosis (AK) causes rough, scaly skin patches. Left untreated, AK can lead to a skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. The best way to prevent AK is to protect yourself from sun damage. If you notice new red or rough bumps on your skin, call your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.
Actinic keratosis (AK) is a skin disorder that causes rough, scaly patches of skin. Another name for AK is solar keratosis. AK is a type of precancer, which means that if you don’t treat the condition, it could turn into cancer. Without treatment, AK can lead to a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
About 58 million Americans have one or more spots of actinic keratosis. AK is the most common type of skin precancer.
People who don’t protect their skin from sun exposure are more likely to get actinic keratosis. Your risk is also higher if you have:
The most common cause of actinic keratosis is too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light comes from the sun or indoor tanning equipment, such as tanning beds. UV light can damage your outer layer of skin cells, called keratinocytes.
Usually, the first signs of actinic keratosis are rough, raised bumps on your skin. They can vary in color but often have a yellow or brown crust on top. These bumps may be:
Symptoms may also include:
Your primary care provider, a dermatologist, (provider specializing in skin conditions) or other healthcare provider can often diagnose actinic keratosis by carefully examining your skin and using magnification. If your healthcare provider is uncertain or the skin looks unusual, she/ he may recommend a skin biopsy. This short, minimally invasive procedure enables your skin cells to be examined under a microscope to obtain a specific diagnosis.
Treatment options depend on how many actinic keratoses (AKs) you have and what they look like. Your healthcare provider may recommend removing the skin patches during an office visit.
To remove actinic keratosis, your provider may use:
If you have several scaly patches or actinic keratoses (AKs) that are difficult to see, your healthcare provider may prescribe at-home treatment. Typically, at-home treatment involves applying medicated creams to your skin. You may have to use these creams for up to four months. Although Voltaren® gel is now over the counter, it is not recommended to use this to treat AK unless specifically recommended by your provider.
Some examples of these creams include:
Depending on the size and number of actinic keratoses (AKs), it can take up to three months for AKs to disappear after treatment ends. After the AKs go away, you will need to see your healthcare provider for a checkup once or twice a year. If you have a weakened immune system that increases your risk for AKs, you may need to see your dermatologist four to six times a year.
The best way to prevent actinic keratosis is to avoid prolonged UV exposure. You can protect your skin by:
Most actinic keratoses (AKs) go away with treatment. About 90% of people with actinic keratosis don’t develop skin cancer. However, most diagnoses of squamous cell carcinoma started as AKs. If you think you have an AK, it’s important to see your healthcare provider right away.
In some cases, actinic keratosis can return if you do not prevent further sun damage. During and after treatment, limit your exposure to UV light.
You are less likely to develop skin cancer if actinic keratosis gets treated right away. You should call your healthcare provider if you notice:
You may want to ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Actinic keratosis is a serious skin disorder that requires immediate treatment. Most AKs go away with surgical or topical treatment. You can lower your risk of actinic keratosis by protecting your skin from sun exposure and ultraviolet light. If you think you have AK, speak with your healthcare provider about diagnosis and treatment. The sooner you seek treatment for actinic keratosis, the less likely you are to develop skin cancer.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/04/2020.
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