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Actinic Keratosis

An actinic keratosis (AK), or “sun spot” as it is also known, is a common alteration of the skin caused by repetitive exposure to ultraviolet radiation, either from the sun or from tanning beds. An actinic keratosis is not a skin cancer, but it is considered to be pre-cancerous. If left untreated, they have the potential to develop into squamous cell carcinoma, which is a form of skin cancer. Research shows that people with actinic keratoses have an increased risk of developing other types of skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma and melanoma. Actinic keratosis usually appears after the age of 40.

Actinic keratosis can appear as a slightly raised, red, rough, scaling patch, and may develop a hard horn-like appearance. Lesions may sting or itch, but usually have no symptoms. Actinic keratosis appears on areas of the body that are exposed to the sun, such as the face, ears, balding scalp, arms, legs, and backs of the hands. Some people may develop only one or a few actinic keratoses, but others may have many at a time. If it develops on the lower lip, it is commonly referred to as “actinic cheilitis.” The lip may become rough, scaly, and chronically dry; white and red patches may appear over the lip on rare occasions.

You may be at more risk to develop actinic keratosis if you

  • spend time outdoors without sun protection (especially fair-skinned individuals)
  • frequent tanning beds or use sun lamps
  • have a weakened immune system
  • are an outdoor worker (roofers are particularly at risk)

Since actinic keratosis has the potential to develop into a skin cancer, it is important to talk to your doctor if you notice an affected area, especially if it becomes itchy, thickened, or painful. Treatments for actinic keratosis include cryosurgery (freezing of the lesion with liquid nitrogen), surgical removal, prescription medications (i.e. topical creams/gels), and photodynamic therapy (PDT).

Actinic keratosis can be prevented by protecting your skin from the sun. Use sunscreen regularly, even on cloudy days. Take other sun safety precautions such as seeking shade, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sun glasses, and sun protective clothing. As well, avoid using tanning beds or other indoor tanning devices.

To learn more about actinic keratosis, click on the links below.

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