What are actinic keratoses?

Actinic keratoses, or AK, are sores on the skin that can turn into cancer if not treated. AK comes from lots of time spent in ultraviolet, or UV, lighting. UV light comes from the sun and is the kind of light that leads to suntans and sunburns.

Common related conditions
Skin Cancer

Causes of actinic keratoses

Most of the time, too much time in the sun causes AK. Even if you don’t spend time laying out by the pool or “working on a tan,” you might be getting sun every day if you work outside or spend time outdoors doing things like gardening. UV light comes from the sun even on cloudy days, so wearing sunscreen all year long is one way to cut down your risk of AK. Sun lamps in tanning beds or tanning booths use UV light, so they can also cause AK. AK takes many years to grow, so people over the age of 50 are more at risk for them. But they can happen at any age.

Risk factors for actinic keratoses

Anyone who spends time in the sun is at risk, but some people are more at risk for AK than others. They include:

  • People with fair skin and freckles
  • People with blonde hair and light-colored eyes (blue, green or gray)
  • People with immune systems that have been weakened by other problems, like AIDS and organ transplants
  • People over the age of 50
  • Those who work outside or have an active outdoor lifestyle
  • Those who live closer to the equator

Even though AK is found most often in Caucasians, any race can get them. AK happens more often in men than in women.

Symptoms of actinic keratoses

AK is a crusty, scaly patch on the skin that most often grows on places that get heavy exposure to the sun. It is often found on your arms, neck or the back of your hands and arms, as well as the legs, lips or even your scalp.

In most cases, the patches are tan, white or pink, but AK can also have more than one color. Sometimes, it turns red. It can be a tiny spot, or can be as wide as an inch across.

Diagnosis of actinic keratoses

Your doctor can diagnose AK with a simple skin exam. They might also want you to have a skin biopsy. This is done in the doctor’s office. Your doctor will numb the area and cut out a small piece of the skin. Then a lab will look at it and see if the cells are abnormal.

Treatments for actinic keratoses

AK may go away on its own, then come back after you have been in the sun again. No one can tell which patches might turn into cancer, so it’s best to have them treated and removed each time.

The kind of treatment your doctor chooses depends on the size and number of AK patches. They all can be done in your doctor’s office. In many cases, your doctor can take care of it on the same day you are diagnosed.

The most common treatments are:

  • Medications like skin creams and ointment
  • Photodynamic therapy, which uses light to destroy any skin cells with AK
  • Cryotherapy, or freezing the patches with liquid nitrogen to kill the cells
  • Scraping away or cutting out the damaged cells

Recovery from actinic keratoses

As long as you are catching signs of AK early, and it doesn’t turn to cancer, you can expect a fast recovery. You may have some redness or burning on the site of the patch, depending on how it was treated.

The most important thing to remember is that you will need to have your skin checked every year to make sure that you don’t have any signs of skin cancer.

Find a skin cancer specialist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you