Recognizing an Actinic Keratosis

An actinic keratosis is one of the most common skin conditions that dermatologists see. Considered a precancerous lesion, an actinic keratosis affects more than 40 million Americans every year.

About 5-10% of people with an actinic keratosis go on to develop a skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma, which is considered not life-threatening but potentially aggressive. If left untreated, squamous cell carcinoma can spread to other parts of your body. 

Actinic keratosis is so widespread because it’s caused by repeated exposure to the sun over the years and only about a third of Americans use sunscreen regularly. 

At Los Gatos Dermatology, we want to help you avoid skin cancer. Our board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Bruce Saal, shares information on how to detect an actinic keratosis (AK) and how to prevent it.

Actinic keratosis risk factors and causes

Anyone can develop an AK, but it’s more common in people over 40. Because AK is caused by long-term exposure to the sun’s UV rays, it slowly develops over time. People who live in sunny regions are at higher risk of developing an AK. Other risk factors include:

If you already have an AK, you’re more likely to develop more actinic keratoses. Know your risks, so you can take precautions to reduce them. 

Signs and symptoms of an actinic keratosis

You may be more likely to feel an AK on your skin first than to see it. An AK lesion feels rough, dry, and scaly. The patch may also feel slightly raised and hard. It appears on skin that’s most exposed to the sun, such as your face, lips, ears, scalp, shoulders, neck, and the back of the hands and forearms. 

When it develops on your lower lip, it’s called actinic cheilitis. When you look in the mirror or at the rough feeling on your skin, it may appear red, pink, gray, yellow, brown, white, or multicolored. An AK sometimes looks like a rash or acne and may itch, burn, sting, or feel tender. 

Actinic keratosis prevention tips

To prevent an AK, follow skin cancer prevention practices. These include wearing sunscreen whenever you leave the house and wearing protective clothing such as hats and long sleeves, and pants when exposed to the sun.

But slathering sunscreen on when you leave the house isn’t enough. If you sweat, swim, or are outside for long periods of time, you should reapply as needed. Try to stay out of the sun or seek shade when the sun’s at its strongest (between 10am and 2pm). And avoid tanning beds; they’re just as dangerous as natural sun exposure. 

If you suspect you have an AK, see us to have it checked out. Treating it early can help prevent your AK from turning into skin cancer.

Have you noticed rough, scaly patches on your skin? Do you think you may have an AK? Call our office in Los Gatos, California, to make an appointment with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Saal for an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment plan.

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