What Is Actinic Keratosis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 October 2019
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An actinic keratosis is a roughened patch on the skin caused by sun damage. Actinic keratoses are often precursors to more serious skin conditions including cancers, so it is important to receive medical attention for the condition. A dermatologist can usually identify an actinic keratosis and establish a treatment plan; treatment typically includes lifetime follow-up, because once someone develops a premalignant condition, it increases his or her risk of a malignant skin problem.

The vast majority of actinic keratoses occur in people with light skin who are exposed to high levels of UV radiation. People who spend a lot of time outdoors, for example, are at increased risk, as are people who regularly use tanning beds. While the condition can occur in people with darker skin, it is unusual.

Actinic keratosis usually starts out as a small patch of rough skin. Over time, the skin becomes reddened, scabby, and scaly. Actinic keratosis can look like a wart or small skin lesion, and it can vary in size, with some spots being around the size of a period, while others are the size of a large coin. Often, people find such marks through feeling them, rather than by observing them, because the color change can be subtle. If the condition is left untreated, it can develop into squamous cell carcinoma, a condition which can become serious.


Typically a doctor will biopsy a suspected lesion first, to confirm that it is not another type of skin problem. After the biopsy results come back, the actinic keratosis can be removed, and the doctor will recommend regular checkups.

Light-skinned people should be careful about sun exposure, especially if they have been diagnosed with the condition in the past. It's a good idea to wear sunscreen at all times, and to protect oneself from the sun with a wide-brimmed hat and loose, long garments. Using a tanning bed can also be dangerous. Regular checks of the skin are advisable, and people should take note of any new markings and see a doctor if those marks change or grow.

When actinic keratosis appears on the lips, it is known as actinic cheilitis, and it can be very dangerous. This form of actinic keratosis can become malignant very easily, so it needs to be treated rapidly. You may also hear actinic keratoses referred to as sun spots, precancerous spots, or solar keratoses. Whatever you call them, be aware that the longer you wait to treat skin spots, the more dangerous they can become.


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