Actinic keratosis – treatment, causes & symptoms

Picture of wrinkles on face

Actinic keratosis

Actinic keratosis is a very common skin growth with a number of different treatments available

What is actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratosis, also known as solar keratosis, is a very common skin condition that usually presents in people over 50 or 60 years old. It is pre-malignant, meaning that if left for long enough, actinic keratosis can potentially turn into a form of skin cancer – known as squamous cell carcinoma

What causes actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratosis is also called solar keratosis as they are caused by solar radiation (sunlight), and essentially represent very sun-damaged skin. This can be due to spending long periods in the sun, or simply having skin that is sensitive to sunlight

What does actinic keratosis look like?

Typically they look like small (1-2mm), flat, red, scaly areas. Often, more than one can be found and they are usually on sun-exposed areas such as the forehead. They are often mistaken as ‘patches of dry skin’

Why does actinic keratosis need treatment?

Actinic keratosis in itself is not cancerous. They need treating, though, as if you have lots of actinic keratoses then there is an approximately 1 in 10 chance that one of them could turn into squamous cell carcinoma, which is a potentially dangerous type of skin cancer. There is no way of telling which ones will turn into cancers though

What treatments are there for actinic keratosis?

There are a number of possible treatments, including:

Skin cream – there are a number of creams that can be applied regularly to the actinic keratosis, resulting in the top layer of skin becoming inflamed and the cells being ‘killed off’, together with the keratosis. Other creams stimulate the body’s immune system to fight off the growths.

Cryotherapy – the actinic keratosis can be frozen with a cold spray. This then blisters and falls off, leaving normal skin.

Curettage – under local anaesthetic, the growth can be ‘scraped away’, with minimal scarring

Chemical peel – peels are usually used in the cosmetic setting, where the skin has a dilute acid applied to it. This takes away the very top layer of skin, leaving youthful skin behind. As actinic keratosis lies on the top layer of skin, a peel will remove them as part of the process. This is quite useful for large areas of sun-damaged skin.

Laser – this can again be used to remove the top layer of skin, taking the actinic keratosis with it. Laser can, however, sometimes also remove the skin pigment, leaving a permanently pale area.

Surgery – if a solar keratosis is resistant to other forms of treatment, then surgery may be needed to finally remove it. This can often be performed under local anaesthetic.

Is actinic keratosis dangerous?

If the solar keratosis has not changed into a squamous cell carcinoma, then there are no direct increased risks to life

How can actinic keratosis be avoided?

Whilst the risks can never be zero, you can reduce your risks greatly with some simple steps. If you have had a keratosis, these steps may also reduce your chances of developing more growths:

•Stay out of the sun, especially between 11am and 3pm, when it is most strong

•Wear high factor sun cream if you need to go out in the sun (eg sports)

•Re-apply sun cream regularly and especially after swimming

•Wear sun-protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts and hats

•Never get sunburnt, and keep children out of the sun

This information is for general information only. If you have any concerns about your health or skin growths, or are considering any treatments, you should seek advice from a healthcare specialist

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