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Actinic Keratosis

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jun 6, 2022.

What is actinic keratosis (AK)?

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. AK is caused by sun exposure.

What increases my risk for AK?

  • Older than 40 years
  • Use of tanning beds
  • Weakened immune system
  • Other skin conditions such as xeroderma pigmentosum or burn scars

What are the signs and symptoms of AK?

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. You may have dry, scaly, or rough skin sores. The sores may be pink, red, brown, or the same color as your skin. Your sores may become hard, crusty, and wartlike. The sores may become itchy or painful. They may bleed when touched.

How is AK diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your sores and examine you. Tell your provider what your sore first looked like and when it started. He or she may ask about your sun exposure, medical history, and activities. A biopsy of your skin or sore may show if you have AK.

How is AK treated?

Cryotherapy may be used to freeze bumps or spots with liquid nitrogen. Medicines may also be used on your skin to treat your AK. Take them as directed. Other procedures may be needed. Your healthcare provider may cut, scrape, freeze, or burn a section of skin to remove the AK. Your healthcare provider may recommend chemical peels, dermabrasion, or laser therapy to treat your AK.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

How can I protect my skin?

  • Check your skin for new bumps once a month. Know what your birthmarks look like. Watch closely for changes.
  • 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 10:00 am and 4:00 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.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • 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 healthcare providers 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.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.