What is actinic keratosis and who is at risk?

An actinic keratosis (AK) is a rough, scaly patch that appears on skin areas that have had a lot of sun exposure. Over the years, ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or indoor tanning damage the skin, leading to abnormal skin growths such as AK. Many people have more than one AK. Sometimes people refer to AKs as "sun spots." You should see your physician if you think you have AK to make sure that your doctor is aware of it and continues to monitor the spots.

AK usually occurs in people who:

  • are over 40, especially if they have had a lot of sun exposure
  • have bald patches on the scalp
  • have fair skin that freckles or burns easily
  • have naturally blond or red hair
  • have naturally blue, green, or hazel eyes
  • have a weakened immune system

AK is most common on body areas that are often exposed to the sun, such as:

  • ears
  • face
  • lips
  • scalp
  • back of the hands
  • forearms
  • legs
  • chest
  • back, including the back of the neck

You may notice these changes on your skin:

  • red, rough, scaly bumps
  • brown, tan, or pink patches
  • growths that look like an animal's horn
  • itching or stinging of skin patches or growths

Sometimes, skin changes may be easier to feel than to see. You may notice rough, scaly skin (like sandpaper) before you see any changes in how your skin looks.

You may also notice changes on your lips:

  • rough, dry, scaly lips with whitish scale on top

*Only your doctor can diagnose AK. If you think you might have AK, see your doctor.

If AK is not treated, it can either go away on its own or persist and become more damaging to your skin. You should see your physician to discuss options for treatment and prevent AK from worsening.

If you think you may have AK, see your doctor. Your doctor will check your skin thoroughly and, if any suspicious growths are found, may take a skin biopsy (a small sample of the growth).

Use the Doctor Discussion Guide to prepare for visiting your doctor.

There are many treatment options for AK. Your doctor will recommend a treatment option based on your age, your health, your preferences, the number of AKs you have, and where they are located.

View tables showing AK treatment options (topical medication and office procedures).

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