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Actinic Keratosis

What is actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratosis (AK), also called solar keratosis, is a precancerous skin disease. Precancerous means that it may develop into cancer. AK causes a dry, scaly, or rough bump to form on your skin. AK is found more often in fair-skinned, light-haired people.

What causes actinic keratosis?

The main cause of AK is sun exposure. The following factors and conditions also increase your risk:

  • Age: You are older than 40 years.

  • Use of tanning beds: Tanning beds and sun lamps release ultraviolet rays that can damage your skin as much as the sun.

  • Weak immune system: A weak immune system cannot destroy precancerous cells easily.

  • Other skin conditions: Diseases such as xeroderma pigmentosum and conditions such as burn scars can make your skin sensitive to sunlight.

What are the signs and symptoms of actinic keratosis?

The earlier an AK is found, the better your chances are for being cured. AK may occur as a single sore or as many sores of different sizes. Most of these bumps are found on the head, neck, or arms.

  • Early symptoms: You may have dry, scaly, or rough skin sores. The sores may be pink, red, brown, or the same color as your skin.

  • Later symptoms: Your sores may become hard, crusty, and wartlike. The sores may look like little animal horns and become itchy or painful. They may bleed when touched.

How is actinic keratosis diagnosed?

Your caregiver will ask about your health and do a physical exam. He may ask what your sore first looked like and when it started. You may also be asked about your past diseases, sun exposure, activities, injuries, and medicines. Your caregiver may also do a skin biopsy. A biopsy means a small piece of the sore is removed and sent to a lab for tests. The tests will show if you have AK.

How is actinic keratosis treated?

  • Medicines:

    • NSAIDs help decrease swelling and pain or fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.

    • Topical chemotherapy: Your caregiver may give you medicine to put on your AK. The medicine may cause your skin to hurt and turn red. Be careful not to get the medicine on skin other than the area being treated. If you do, wash it off right away with soap and water. If the medicine gets on your clothes, wash your clothes right away.

  • Surgery: Your caregiver may cut, scrape, freeze, or burn a section of skin to remove the AK.

  • Other procedures: Your caregiver may recommend chemical peels, dermabrasion, or laser therapy to treat your AK.

How can I take care of my skin?

  • Check your skin: Look for new bumps once a month. Know what your birthmarks look like. Watch closely for changes, especially after you are 40 years of age.

  • Protect your skin:

    • Do not use tanning beds. The beds use ultraviolet (UV) rays and can damage your skin as much as the sun.

    • Wear sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher. The sunscreen should also have UVA and UVB protection. Follow the directions on the label when you use sunscreen. Put on more sunscreen if you are in the sun for longer than an hour. Reapply sunscreen often if you swim or sweat.

    • Stay out of the sun between 11 AM and 2 PM. The sun is strongest and most damaging to your skin between these times.

    • Protect your lips by using lipsticks and lip balms that contain sunscreen.

    • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to protect your arms and legs when you are out in the sun. Wear a hat with a wide brim to protect both your face and neck.

Contact your caregiver if:

  • Your skin stings or burns when you use your medicines.

  • You have new or worsening symptoms.

  • You have pus or blood oozing out of sores.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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