Actinic Keratosis: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

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What is actinic keratosis?

You could start to see rough, scaly spots develop on your hands, arms, or face as you age. Although they are medically termed as actinic keratosis, these spots are also referred to as sunspots or age spots.

Actinic keratosis typically appear in places that have long-term UV damage (sun exposure). They develop when you have actinic keratosis (AK), a skin disease that is quite common.

AK occurs when skin cells called keratinocytes start to grow abnormally, forming scaly, discolored spots. The skin patches can be any of these colors: brown, tan, gray and pink.

They tend to appear on the parts of the body that get the most sun exposure, including the following: hands, arms, face, scalp or neck.

The actinic keratosis themselves are not malignant. Although it’s unlikely, they can develop into squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

Up to 10% of actinic keratosis might develop into SCC if they are untreated. The second most typical kind of skin cancer is SCC. This danger necessitates routine dermatological or medical monitoring of the areas.

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What causes actinic keratosis?

The main cause of Actinic Keratosis is repeated exposure to sunshine. This condition is more likely to affect you if you:

  • are over age 60
  • have light-colored skin and blue eyes
  • have a tendency to sunburn easily
  • also have a history of sunburns earlier in life
  • have been frequently exposed to the sun over your lifetime
  • have human papilloma virus (HPV)

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Actinic Keratosis Symptoms

What are the symptoms of actinic keratosis? Actinic keratosis initially appear as crusty, scaly skin patches. Typically, these patches are the size of a small pencil eraser. Itching or burning might be present in the afflicted area.

The lesions may change throughout time, become larger, stay the same size, or transform into SCC. It is impossible to predict which lesions may develop into cancer. However, if you detect any of the following changes, you should seek medical attention right once:

  • hardening of the lesion
  • inflammation
  • rapid enlargement
  • bleeding
  • redness
  • ulceration

If there are cancerous alterations, don’t become frightened. In its early stages, SCC is extremely simple to identify and cure.

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How is actinic keratosis diagnosed?

Your physician might be able to identify Actinic Keratosis just by looking at it. Any lesions that appear worrisome may require a skin biopsy. The only surefire technique to determine if lesions have developed into SCC is by a skin biopsy.

Actinic Keratosis Treatment

How is actinic keratosis treated? AK may be treated in the following ways:

1. Excision

Excision entails severing the lesion from the surrounding skin. If there are any worries regarding skin cancer, your doctor may decide to remove any excess tissue from surrounding or under the lesion. Stitching could or might not be required, depending on the extent of the incision.

2. Cauterization

In cauterization, the lesion is burned with an electric current. This kills the affected skin cells.

3. Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy, commonly known as cryosurgery, is a method of treatment in which a cryosurgery solution, such as liquid nitrogen, is sprayed onto the lesion. Contacting this causes the cells to instantly freeze and die. Within a few days of the operation, the lesion will scab over and fall off.

4. Topical medical therapy

Certain topical treatments such as 5-fluorouracil (Carac, Efudex, Fluoroplex, Tolak) cause inflammation and destruction of the lesions. Other topical treatments include imiquimod (Aldara, Zyclara) and ingenol mebutate (Picato).

5. Phototherapy

During phototherapy, a solution is applied over the lesion and the affected skin. The area is then exposed to intense laser light that targets and kills the cells. Common solutions used in phototherapy include prescription medications, such as aminolevulinic acid (Levulan Kerastick) and methyl aminolevulinate cream (Metvix).

Actinic Keratosis Prevention

How can you prevent actinic keratosis? The best method to avoid AK is to spend less time in the sun. Additionally, it will lower your chance of developing skin cancer. Keep the following in mind:

  • When you’re in direct sunlight, wear caps and long-sleeved clothes.
  • Avoid going outside at midday, when the sun is brightest.
  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • Always use sunscreen when you’re outside. It’s best to use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of at least 30. It should block both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) light.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to routinely check your skin. Look for the emergence of fresh skin growths or any alterations in any already present:

  • bumps
  • birthmarks
  • moles
  • freckles

Be cautious to inspect these areas for any changes or new skin growths:

  • face
  • neck
  • ears
  • the tops and undersides of your arms and hands

If you have any concerning skin lesions, make a doctor’s visit as soon as you can.


How long does it take for actinic keratosis to become cancerous?

That said, once you have an actinic keratosis lesion, or many, these growths may transform into skin cancer within a three-year period.

How do you know if actinic keratosis has turned to cancer?

Only about 10 percent of actinic keratosis will eventually become cancerous, but the majority of SCCs do begin as AKs. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell which AKs will become dangerous, so monitoring and treating any that crop up is the only way to be sure.

What is the difference between actinic keratosis and seborrheic keratosis?

Actinic keratoses can bleed easily and may take longer to heal. In some cases, the patches may be very sensitive, burn, or itch. Seborrheic keratoses can vary in how they appear. These growths are often rough and feel crumbly in texture, but sometimes can be smooth and waxy.

What does actinic keratosis look like?

They appear as waxy light tan, brown or black growths that look as if they were dripped onto the skin by a candle. Some can grow large, more than 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) across. Also called solar keratoses, these patches are commonly found on the sun-exposed areas of people who have light skin.

What is the best treatment for actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratoses can be removed by freezing them with liquid nitrogen. Your health care provider applies the substance to the affected skin, which causes blistering or peeling. As your skin heals, the damaged cells slough off, allowing new skin to appear. Cryotherapy is the most common treatment.

Is actinic keratosis cancer?

Actinic keratosis is an abnormal growth of cells caused by long-term damage from the sun. They are not cancerous, but a small fraction of them will develop into skin cancer. Because we don’t know which ones will become cancer and which will not, dermatologists recommend treatment of these lesions.

Does actinic keratosis itch?

AKs are often more easily felt than seen. Skin may feel dry and rough to the touch, or raw, sensitive and painful, or even itchy with a pricking or burning sensation. Some AKs look and feel inflamed. In rare instances, they may bleed or develop a persistent sore, also known as an ulceration.

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Is there an over the counter treatment for actinic keratosis?

While no home remedies can treat this condition, a doctor might prescribe at-home topical medications to reduce its appearance. You can lower your risk of developing actinic keratoses by reducing sun exposure and using sunscreen every day. See 7 Best Essential Oils to Treat Skin Rashes

How to remove actinic keratosis at home: Apply an over-the-counter cream that contains urea, lactic acid, alpha hydroxy acid or salicylic acid. These creams help loosen and remove dead skin cells. They also moisturize and soften dry skin. See 5 Green Tea Benefits for your Healthy Skin