Up to 58 million Americans have actinic keratosis (AK). An AK has the potential to progress to squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), the second most common skin cancer. While most AKs remain benign, approximately 10 percent develop into SCC within an average of two years.1 Since there is no way to know ahead of time which ones will become cancerous, it is very important to seek a dermatologist’s care. Frequent skin examinations are the key to early detection and prevention.
AKs – often called “sun spots”— are rough-textured, dry, scaly patches on the skin caused by excessive exposure to ultraviolet light (UV) such as sunlight. They occur most often on sun exposed areas such as the face, scalp or ears, and can range in color from skin toned to reddish brown. They can be as small as a pinhead or larger than a quarter.
Actinic Keratoses generally begin as rough spots of skin that may be easier felt than seen. Common complaints include a lesion that has increased in size or one that is raised, bleeding, poor in healing, discolored, or associated with discomfort such as pain or itching.
While a lesion may initially appear skin colored to pink, red, or brown, lesions on darker skin may be more pigmented. AKs may feel soft, rough, or “gritty,” but in any case, they feel different from the surrounding healthy skin.
Since there are many clinical variants of AKs, it is best to consult a dermatologist if you suspect a lesion.
AKs are seen primarily in Caucasians with pale skin living in sunny climates. Areas of the skin with the most sun exposure, such as the head, neck, forearms, and hands account for more than 80 percent of AKs.
Actinic Keratoses develop as the result of years of sun exposure. Because the effect of sun exposure is cumulative, it is your lifetime exposure that increases your risk. Even if you didn’t suntan much, years of just doing simple tasks outside can add up to significant amount of sun exposures. For example:
Because AKs take a long time to develop, they generally appear after the age of 40. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that 60 percent of persons apt to get Actinic Keratoses will indeed get at least one AK in their lifetime.
Your risk of developing AKs increases if you have one or more of the risk factors.
A weakened immune system
1 Fuchs A, Marmur E. The Kinetics of Skin Cancer: Progression of Actinic Keratosis to Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Dermatol Surg. 2007;33:1099-1101.
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