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Actinic Keratosis


What is Actinic Keratosis or AK?

Actinic keratosis, sometimes referred to as AK, is a precancerous growth on the skin. It is one of the most common skin conditions treated by dermatologists in the United States and it is estimated that some 40 million people experience it each year. These growths appear most often on the face, ears, hands or on a balding head.

Signs and Symptoms of Actinic Keratosis

Actinic keratosis can appear as red or brown, irregular spots or patches on the skin. They are also sometimes severely raised, patchy, or even scaly. Due to their similarity in appearance to age spots, they are often confused with age spots. When AK occurs on the lips, it most often looks like dried or chapped lips that do not heal. It can also look like scaly, white patches on the lips. In rare situations, an AK may actually look like a small animal horn. These lesions require immediate intervention from a medical professional as they can indicate potential squamous cell carcinoma.

What Causes Actinic Keratosis?

AK is caused by consistent exposure to the sun or tanning via indoor tanning equipment such as a tanning bed. As the skin is exposed to too much sun over time, it absorbs harmful UV lights leading to patches that feel rough and scaly or look discolored. Some people are at greater risk for being affected by UV rays, including those with fair skin or albinism, red or blond hair, or light-colored eyes. Certain medical conditions can also put someone at higher risk for AK, including being an organ transplant recipient or having a weakened immune system.

How Actinic Keratosis is Treated

Treating AK depends on many factors, including:

  • How many AKs are present on the skin
  • Where they are located
  • What they look like
  • Whether or not you have had skin cancer in the past

Those with a few AKs can go through some easy procedures in a doctor’s office. At-home treatment may be recommended as well for those with several AKs. Treatments can include:

  • Cryotherapy: A doctor “freezes” the area by spraying it with liquid nitrogen
  • Chemical peel: A medical-grade chemical peel used to destroy the top layer of skin
  • Curettage: The top layer of the AK is scraped; typically followed with electrodesiccation, which uses heat to destroy AK cells
  • Photodynamic therapy: A two-stage treatment that involves making the skin sensitive to light with a topical solution then applying light to the skin
  • Laser resurfacing: Most often used on actinic cheilitis, a precancerous growth found on lips

Related Treatments


Aldara is a brand of imiquimod, which is a prescription medicine used to treat actinic keratoses (AKs), genital warts and sometimes, early stages of basal cell carcinoma. Learn More


A biopsy works by taking a small sample of tissue from a suspect area in the body so that it can be tested under lab conditions for certain diseases and disorders. Learn More

Blue Light Therapy

Blue light is a popular therapy used for treating acne. Blue light kills off bacteria on the skin and in the oil glands that cause acne. Learn More


A corticosteroid works by suppressing the activity of the immune system and reducing the production of chemicals that create inflammation. Learn More

Fluorouracil (5FU)

Fluorouracil works to slow this growth by killing off the fast-growing cells in the affected region of the skin. Learn More


Imiquimod is a topical cream that stimulates the immune system. Learn More

Liquid Nitrogen Cryotherapy

Liquid nitrogen cryotherapy works by freezing and destroying the cells in a skin growth or lesion. Learn More

Photodynamic Therapy

Photodynamic therapy addresses pre-malignant growths, precancerous cells, and other skin conditions. This treatment works by using specialized drugs known as photosensitizing agents in tandem with light. Learn More

Topical Chemotherapy

Topical chemotherapy works by modifying the body’s immune response. Learn More

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