Health Conditions

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Actinic keratosis


Actinic keratosis is a precancerous growth on the skin.


Actinic keratosis is caused by sun exposure. It occurs most commonly in fair skin, especially in the elderly and in young people who have light skin.


  • Rough and dry skin lesion
  • Patch or growth on the skin
    • Limited to one area (localized)
    • Located on the face, scalp, back of the hands, chest, or other sun-exposed areas
    • Gray, pink, red (erythematous), or the same color as the skin
    • Begins as flat and scaly areas
    • Later develops a hard and wart-like or gritty, rough, and "sandpapery" surface -- may develop a horn-like texture

The skin lesion may be easier to feel than to see.


Because actinic keratoses are precancerous changes, have them examined promptly. Follow your health care provider's advice for treatment.

Growths may be removed by:

  • Burning (electrical cautery)
  • Freezing (cryotherapy)
  • Surgery

Growths may also be treated with medications that cause the skin to peel or come off. More recently, lasers and other light sources have been used to treat actinic keratoses.

Creams such as 5-fluorouracil and imiquimod are used for people who have many lesions. These creams usually cause irritation and redness.


Actinic keratosis itself is benign, but it may develop into skin cancer. If left untreated, approximately 1% of actinic keratoses develop into squamous cell carcinoma.

Removal of the growth is usually effective.


Ways to prevent actinic keratosis:

  • Reduce sun exposure and protect your skin from the sun.
  • Wear protective clothing such as hats, long-sleeved shirts, long skirts, or pants.
  • Try to avoid sun exposure during midday, when ultraviolet light is most intense.
  • Use high-quality sunscreens, preferably with SPF (sun protection factor) ratings of at least 15. Pick a sunscreen that blocks both UBA and UVB light.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going out into the sun, and reapply frequently.
  • Use sunscreen year-round, including in the winter.