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Actinic Keratosis


Actinic keratosis is one of the most commonly treated skin conditions by dermatologists in the United States, and it is estimated that some 40 million people experience it each year. While actinic keratosis may appear harmless, it can develop into skin cancer if left untreated. Armed with knowledge about what causes this condition and the signs, you can take proactive steps to protect your skin, preventing further damage.

What is Actinic Keratosis?

Actinic keratosis, also known as solar keratosis, is a common skin condition caused by prolonged exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays or via indoor tanning beds. The UV rays cause the skin to produce an excess of keratin, a tough protein that forms the outer layer of the skin. This buildup of keratin leads to the formation of the rough, scaly patches, commonly found on areas that are frequently exposed to the sun, such as the face, ears, scalp, arms, and hands.

Causes and Risk Factors of Actinic Keratosis

The primary cause of actinic keratosis is long-term exposure to the sun’s UV rays. However, there are several other factors that can increase the risk of developing this condition. Individuals with fair skin, red or blond hair, or light-colored eyes are more susceptible to actinic keratosis, as they have less melanin, the pigment that provides a form of protection against UV radiation.

Other risk factors include:

  • A history of frequent sunburns
  • Living in sunny climates
  • Spending a lot of time outdoors without sun protection
  • Using tanning beds
  • People with weakened immune systems

Signs and Symptoms of Actinic Keratosis

Actinic keratosis typically appears as small, rough, scaly patches on the skin. These patches may be pink, red, or brown in color and can feel rough and crusty to the touch. They may also be accompanied by burning or stinging sensations.

When actinic keratosis 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. In rare situations, actinic keratosis 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.

It is important to note that actinic keratosis can vary in appearance and may resemble other skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or even skin cancer. Therefore, it is crucial to consult a dermatologist for an accurate diagnosis.

How is Actinic Keratosis Diagnosed?

A dermatologist can usually diagnose actinic keratosis by examining the affected areas of the skin. In some cases, a skin biopsy may be performed to confirm the diagnosis and rule out any other underlying conditions.

During a skin biopsy, a small sample of the affected skin is removed and sent to a laboratory for analysis. The results of the biopsy can help determine the severity of the condition and guide the appropriate treatment plan.

Actinic Keratosis Treatments

There are several treatment options available for actinic keratosis, depending on the severity of the condition, how many there are, where they are located, and whether or not you have had skin cancer in the past. Common treatment methods include:

Topical Medications

Prescription creams or gels containing ingredients such as imiquimod, fluorouracil, or diclofenac can be applied directly to the affected areas to help remove the abnormal skin cells. There are also over the counter topical treatments you can use.


This treatment involves freezing the affected areas with liquid nitrogen, causing the abnormal cells to blister and eventually fall off. Cryotherapy is a quick and effective treatment option, but it may cause temporary redness, swelling, and blistering.

Curettage and Desiccation

In this procedure, the dermatologist uses a sharp tool called a curette to scrape off the abnormal cells, followed by electrocautery to burn the remaining tissue. Local anesthesia is usually administered to minimize discomfort during the procedure.

Photodynamic Therapy

Photodynamic therapy involves applying a photosensitizing agent to the affected areas, which is then activated by a specific wavelength of light. The activated agent destroys the abnormal cells, and the damaged tissue eventually flakes off.

Laser Therapy

In laser therapy, a high-energy beam of light is used to precisely target and destroy the abnormal cells. Laser treatment is often reserved for more severe cases of actinic keratosis or when other treatment methods have not been effective.

How to Prevent Actinic Keratosis

Prevention is key when it comes to actinic keratosis. Taking proactive steps to protect your skin from sun damage can greatly reduce the risk of developing this condition. Here are some preventive measures to consider:

  • Sun protection: Always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher before going outdoors. Reapply every two hours or more frequently if sweating or swimming. Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses.
  • Seek shade: Limit direct exposure to the sun, especially during peak hours when the sun’s rays are the strongest (usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.). Seek shade under trees, umbrellas, or other protective structures.
  • Avoid tanning beds: Tanning beds emit UV radiation, which can be just as damaging as the sun. Avoid using tanning beds altogether to minimize the risk of actinic keratosis and other skin conditions.
  • Perform regular skin checks: Routinely examine your skin for any suspicious spots or changes. If you notice any new or changing moles, growths, or patches, consult a dermatologist for a thorough evaluation.
  • Stay hydrated: Proper hydration is essential for maintaining healthy skin. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep your skin hydrated and supple.

Does Actinic Keratosis Itch?

Actinic keratosis can sometimes cause itching, especially if the patches become irritated or inflamed. Itching is often a result of dryness or sensitivity in the affected area. To alleviate itching, it is important to keep the skin moisturized and avoid scratching, as this can further damage the skin and increase the risk of infection. If itching persists or becomes severe, it is recommended to consult a dermatologist for further evaluation and appropriate treatment options.

Does Actinic Keratosis Go Away?

Actinic keratosis does not typically go away on its own. Without treatment, the patches may persist and even progress to skin cancer. It is important to seek medical attention for proper diagnosis and treatment options.

Can Actinic Keratosis Come and Go?

Actinic keratosis can come and go, especially if the underlying causes are not addressed. Factors such as sun exposure, genetics, and immune system function can contribute to the recurrence of actinic keratosis lesions. It is crucial to continue practicing sun protection measures and regularly monitoring your skin for any changes or new patches.

Get Treatment for Actinic Keratosis with VitalSkin

Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for actinic keratosis is essential for maintaining healthy skin and preventing potential complications. By taking proactive steps to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays and seeking appropriate treatment when necessary, you can minimize the risk of developing actinic keratosis and other sun-related skin conditions. 

The dermatologists at VitalSkin are experienced in the treatment of actinic keratosis, and can help you keep your skin healthy and radiant for years to come. Contact us today to schedule an appointment

Related Treatments

Aldara Treatment

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

Skin Biopsy

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

Corticosteroids Treatments

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

Fluorouracil (5FU) Treatments

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

Imiquimod Treatments

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

Liquid Nitrogen Cryotherapy Treatments

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 Treatments

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

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