An actinic keratosis (ak-TIN-ik ker-uh-TOE-sis) is a rough, scaly patch on your skin that develops from years of exposure to the sun. It’s most commonly found on your face, lips, ears, back of your hands, forearms, scalp or neck.
Also known as solar keratosis, an actinic keratosis enlarges slowly and usually causes no signs or symptoms other than a patch or small spot on your skin. These lesions take years to develop, usually first appearing in older adults.
A small percentage of actinic keratosis lesions can eventually become skin cancer. You can reduce your risk of actinic keratosis by minimizing your sun exposure and protecting your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays.
The signs and symptoms of an actinic keratosis include:
- Rough, dry or scaly patch of skin, usually less than 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter
- Flat to slightly raised patch or bump on the top layer of skin
- In some cases, a hard, wart-like surface
- Color as varied as pink, red or brown, or flesh-colored
- Itching or burning in the affected area
Actinic keratoses are found primarily on areas exposed to the sun, including your face, lips, ears, back of your hands, forearms, scalp and neck. Actinic keratosis is caused by frequent or intense exposure to UV rays, from the sun or from tanning beds.
Although anyone can develop actinic keratoses, you may be more likely to develop the condition if you:
- Are older than 40
- Live in a sunny climate
- Have a history of frequent or intense sun exposure or sunburn
- Have pale skin, red or blond hair, and blue or light-colored eyes
- Tend to freckle or burn when exposed to sunlight
- Have a personal history of an actinic keratosis or skin cancer
- Have a weak immune system as a result of chemotherapy, chronic leukemia, AIDS or organ transplant medications
If treated early, almost all actinic keratoses can be eliminated before developing into skin cancer. However, if left untreated some of these spots or patches may progress to squamous cell carcinoma — a type of cancer that usually isn’t life-threatening if detected and treated early. Your doctor can usually diagnose actinic keratosis simply by looking at it. If there’s any doubt, your doctor may do other tests, such as a skin biopsy. During a skin biopsy, your doctor takes a small sample of your skin for analysis in a lab. A biopsy can usually be done in a doctor’s office after a numbing injection.
Prevention of actinic keratoses is important because the condition can precede cancer or be an early form of skin cancer. Sun safety is necessary to help prevent development and recurrence of patches and lesions caused by an actinic keratosis.
Limit your time in the sun. Use sunscreen. Cover up. Avoid tanning beds and tan-accelerating agents. Check your skin regularly and report changes to your doctor.