Actinic Keratosis: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment And Prevention

Reviewed by Dr. Ameesha Mahajan

Dermatologist | M.D - Skin & VD, MBBS

Written by Sanya HamdaniNov 30, 2023
 Actinic keratosis: Causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention

Your skin, although the largest organ is also one of the most delicate parts of the body. It is susceptible to damage the most and it is therefore essential to take good care of it by following a healthy skincare routine. Wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen is the most basic yet important skincare step that everyone needs to follow, irrespective of their age, gender or skin type. It can keep most of your skin problems at bay, right from premature ageing to sun spots and uneven skin tone. In fact, constant and unprotected sun exposure can sometimes lead to more serious problems like skin cancer and actinic keratosis.

Wondering what this term is and who is at risk of developing this skin condition? Learning about actinic keratosis is surely one way to prevent it. In some cases, it could also be a precursor to cancer. If not treated in the early stages, it may progress into skin cancer. You will be surprised to know that it is a common skin condition and dermatologists come across several cases every year. Therefore, we contacted Dr. Ameesha Mahajan of R M Aesthetics, Amritsar, to know more about actinic keratosis. In this article, she talks about the symptoms, causes, treatment options as well as ways to prevent it.


What is actinic keratosis?

FAQs about actinic keratosis

Actinic Keratosis (AK) is a rough scaly spot on the skin which develops due to years of sun exposure. It is also known as senile keratoses or solar keratoses. It usually develops on the areas that are exposed to the sun like the face, scalp, lips, ears, back of hands and forearms. In severe cases, it may be present on the upper back and the feet as well. These skin lesions are not cancerous, but a small percentage of them can progress to squamous cell carcinoma over a number of years and therefore early detection and treatment is important.


Symptoms of actinic keratosis

FAQs about actinic keratosis

Actinic keratoses vary in appearance, but can usually be diagnosed by a dermatologist by looking at it. Some of the common symptoms include:

  • Number of lesions: There could be a single lesion or multiple lesions in different areas
  • Size: It can be a rough, dry patch of skin varying in size from 1cm to 1inch
  • Surface: It can be flat, raised or have a wart-like surface
  • Colour: It could be skin coloured, red or pigmented (brown)
  • Associated symptoms: It can be totally asymptomatic or associated with itching, burning sensation or even bleeding and crusting in severe cases.


What are the causes of actinic keratosis?

FAQs about actinic keratosis

Actinic Keratoses is primarily caused by long-term sun exposure, mainly to the UVB spectrum of light. There is an abnormal cell development due to DNA damage by the short-wavelength UVB rays.

The following are a risk factor to developing actinic keratoses:

1. Age over 60 years:

Age plays a vital role in this. Males in the older age group i.e., above 60 years are more prone to develop actinic keratoses.

2. Fairer skin types:

Melanin has a protective role against UVB damage and therefore Fitzpatrick skin types I and II are more prone to develop it. However, this does not mean that other skin types cannot get it, but the numbers are much lower.

3. Tendency to sunburn easily:

People who sunburn easily have a higher chance of developing actinic keratosis because their body’s ability to withstand UV exposure is less.

4. Prolonged exposure to sunlight:

Prolonged exposure due to an outdoor job or spending too much time at the beach can also increase your chances of getting actinic keratosis.

5. Low immunity:

If your immune function is poor or you are immunosuppressed due to a disease or some medicines, it can interfere with your bodies’ repair mechanisms and make you more prone to develop actinic keratosis.


How is actinic keratosis treated?

FAQs about actinic keratosis

It is important to get actinic keratosis treated early because if left untreated, it has the potential to evolve into squamous cell carcinoma. It is usually removed at a dermatologist’s clinic. If there are any suspicious changes, it is sent for a biopsy to rule out any signs of cancer. The treatment options range from topical treatments to excision, take a look at all the methods of treatment below.

1. Topical medicine:

Certain medicines can be applied over actinic keratosis which causes the destruction of the lesion. They can be 5-Fluorouracil, Imiquimod etc. The choice of medication is decided by the dermatologist after studying the size and nature of the lesion.

2. Excision:

The lesions can be removed as a whole, along with the margins and sent for biopsy after removal for evaluation, this helps rule out signs of cancer. This is usually done in case the lesion is suspicious.

3. Cautery:

In cauterization, the lesion is burnt with an electric current. This kills the affected skin cells and prevents it from spreading further.

4. Cryotherapy:

In cryotherapy, the lesion is sprayed with a cryosurgery solution like liquid nitrogen. It freezes the affected cells upon contact and kills them. The lesion scabs and falls off within a week of the procedure.


Is there any way to prevent it?

FAQs about actinic keratosis

We’ve all heard the saying, prevention is better than cure, and firmly believe in it, especially when it comes to skin conditions like actinic keratosis. Scroll down to see simple ways to protect your skin from developing this serious condition.

1. Sunscreen:

The first and most important way to prevent actinic keratosis is by liberal and frequent usage of sunscreen. It helps in reducing the risk of developing the condition and keeps other common skin problems at bay.

2. Cover-up:

When you are going to be out in the sun for long durations, it is advised to wear wide-brimmed hats and protective clothing like a scarf or pull over to provide a physical barrier to the skin from UV rays. This will be extremely helpful in reducing the risk of sun damage.

3. Avoid tanning beds:

Though infrequently used in India, tanning beds should be avoided as they increase the risk of actinic keratosis.

4. Limit sun exposure:

Even though we need sun for our vitamin D levels, unprotected prolonged sun exposure can cause a lot of sun damage. Spending 10 minutes in the sun early morning is enough to get your required level of vitamin D.

5. Check your skin for lesions:

Check the skin on your face and body regularly and see a dermatologist if you see any suspicious skin lesion, especially if it is growing fast in size, bleeding or rapidly increasing in number.


FAQs about actinic keratosis

FAQs about actinic keratosis

1) Is actinic keratosis cancerous?

A. Actinic keratosis is not cancerous in nature. However, if left untreated, it may develop into squamous cell skin cancer over a period of time. While the condition is not life-threatening, it is best to get it treated at the earliest to reduce the risk of developing cancer in the future.

2) Does actinic keratosis go away?

A. Actinic keratosis does not go away on its own, a topical or in-clinic treatment method is required to get rid of the lesion. Visiting a dermatologist as soon as you spot a lesion is important. There is a very small chance of it developing into cancer in the future.

3) What does actinic keratosis look like?

A. Actinic keratosis may appear in different sizes and colours. It can be dry, scaly or crusty and may be red, white, pink or tan in colour. It is often rough in texture and therefore easier to feel than see. Only a dermatologist would be able to identify it after looking at all the symptoms carefully.

Sanya Hamdani

Written by

Sanya Hamdani is a skincare enthusiast and lipstick hoarder, she truly believes no two red lipsticks look exactly alike. With a Master's degree in Communication & Journalism and 5+ years of digital writing experience up her sleeve, Sanya has some of the biggest beauty experts in the country on her speed dial. When she's not swatching products or writing about the latest trends in beauty, you will find her watching F.R.I.E.N.D.S. or cooking up a storm in the kitchen.


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