Actinic keratosis (AK) is a pre-cancerous growth on the skin that marks the earliest stage in the development of skin cancer. It appears as a dry, scaly, rough patch on the skin after continuous exposure to sunlight. Sometimes this lesion resembles an animal horn and it is called “cutaneous horn.” It usually forms on the face, scalp, back of the hands, or chest and often affects people with fair complexions.
If left untreated, actinic keratosis may progress to squamous cell carcinoma, one of the most common types of skin cancer. It is very important to consult a dermatologist once you suspect any symptoms of actinic keratosis.
There are several options for the treatment of actinic keratosis. Your dermatologist will evaluate and decide which treatment is best for you. Some of the techniques are listed below:
In this procedure, a very cold substance, usually liquid nitrogen, is applied to the lesion. This causes freezing of the surface skin leading to blisters and peeling of the lesion. Healing takes place in 3-6 weeks.
- Imiquimod This is an immunomodulator drug which stimulates your body’s defense mechanism to fight against diseases. Imiquimod skin creams are applied to the affected area nightly for several weeks. It acts by modifying the immune system to reject the UV-damaged cells in the skin.
- 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) A topical chemotherapy agent, 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU), is applied twice daily for 2 to 4 weeks. This agent causes irritation in the sun damaged areas and destroys the actinic keratosis (pre-cancerous) cells.
Actinic keratosis develops because of chronic exposure to sunlight. The best method for prevention is to protect your skin from harmful UV rays by practice sun avoidance, and wearing sunscreen and protective clothing/hats.
- Minimize sun exposure from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM when the sun’s UV rays are the strongest. If you enjoy outdoor activities such as golfing, gardening, running, walking, or boating, try to schedule them outside of these “peak sun hours.”
- Apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater at least 30 minutes before going outdoors and reapply as directed on the product label. Products containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide provide an extra level of physical barrier protection from the sun. Choose a cream-based sunscreen if you have dry skin, and a gel-based, oil-free, non-comedogenic formula if you have oily or acne-prone skin. “Water-resistan” sunscreens are best if you will be sweating or in water. Remember to reapply every 80 minutes. If the ears or portions of the scalp are exposed due to short or thinning hair, apply sunscreen to these areas as well.
- Protect your lips with lipstick or a lip balm containing sunscreen.
- Wear protective clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, wide-brimmed hat, and ultraviolet blocking sunglasses.
- Avoid use of UV beds at tanning salons.
- Make sure to use sunscreens even on overcast days. UV rays can be as damaging to your skin on cloudy, hazy days, as they are on bright, sunny days.
- Use a sunscreen while at lower latitudes or higher altitudes. The sun is stronger near the equator and at high elevations.
- If you need a little “color,” consider using a sunless tanning lotion or get a spray tan.