You notice a small crusty spot on your skin that appears a bit worrisome. Everyone knows that certain lesions are considered to be pre-cancerous and this roughened area has been there for a while. You go to see the dermatologist and he confirms that the area is actinic keratosis and suggests some ways to treat it. What exactly is actinic keratosis and how concerned should you be?
Actinic keratosis, also called solar keratosis, are growths caused by excess sun exposure. Doctors do consider them to be precancerous. The areas appear bump-like and range in size from being a small pinpoint to over an inch across. Actinic keratosis first starts out as a flat or scaly blemish and then over time develops a crusty or horn-like covering. Actinic keratosis also come in a variety of colors from pink to red or can be tan in color. They typically are slow growing and so more commonly appear in older adults over the age of 40.
According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD), half of actinic keratosis lesions will go away on their own if the areas are not exposed to the sun for a few years. However, the real concern is that 10 to 15 percent of the lesions that are more reddened and tender will progress to become squamous cell carcinoma and people with actinic keratosis are more likely to develop melanoma—the most serious form of skin cancer. Realistically, these spots are going to receive more sun exposure with time not less.
Squamous cell carcinoma may not be as life threatening as melanoma if treated early but still, around three percent of people will develop cancer spreading to other areas of their body. One of the most serious forms of actinic keratosis is called actinic cheilitis, which are whitish patches that develop on dry cracked or swollen lips. Those lesions have been found to develop into squamous cell cancer up to 20 percent of the time according to the AOCD.
A doctor will help you decide which of the treatments below are most practical for the type of actinic keratosis you have.