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Sometimes called solar keratosis or senile keratosis, is a pre-cancerous area of thick, scaly, or crusty skin. The term actinic keratosis can be literally understood as a disorder (-osis) of epidermal keratinocytes that is induced by ultraviolet (UV) light exposure (actin-). These growths are more common in fair-skinned people and those who are frequently in the sun. They are believed to form when skin gets damaged by UV radiation from the sun or indoor tanning beds, usually over the course of decades. Given their pre-cancerous nature, if left untreated, they may turn into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. Untreated lesions have up to a 20% risk of progression to squamous cell carcinoma, so treatment by a dermatologist is recommended.

Signs and Symptoms:

Actinic keratoses characteristically appear as thick, scaly, or crusty areas that often feel dry or rough. Size commonly ranges between 2 and 6 millimeters, but they can grow to be several centimeters in diameter. Notably, AKs are often felt before they are seen, and the texture is sometimes compared to sandpaper. They may be dark, light, tan, pink, red, a combination of all these, or have the same color as the surrounding skin.


The most important cause of AK formation is solar radiation, through a variety of mechanisms. Mutation of the p53 tumor suppressor gene, induced by UV radiation, has been identified as a crucial step in AK formation. This tumor suppressor gene, located on chromosome 17p132, allows for cell cycle arrest when DNA or RNA is damaged. Dysregulation of the p53 pathway can thus result in unchecked replication of dysplastic keratinocytes, thereby serving as a source of neoplastic growth and the development of AK, as well as possible progression from AK to skin cancer. Other molecular markers that have been associated with the development of AK include the expression of p16ink4, p14, the CD95 ligand, TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) and TRAIL receptors, and loss of heterozygosity.

Evidence also suggests that the human papillomavirus (HPV) plays a role in the development of AKs. The HPV virus has been detected in AKs, with measurable HPV viral loads (one HPV-DNA copy per less than 50 cells) measured in 40% of AKs. Similar to UV radiation, higher levels of HPV found in AKs reflect enhanced viral DNA replication. This is suspected to be related to the abnormal keratinocyte proliferation and differentiation in AKs, which facilitate an environment for HPV replication. This in turn may further stimulate the abnormal proliferation that contributes to the development of AKs and carcinogenesis.


If clinical examination findings are not typical of AK and the possibility of in situ or invasive squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) cannot be excluded based on clinical examination alone, a biopsy or excision can be considered for definitive diagnosis by histologic examination of the lesional tissue. Multiple treatment options for AK are available. Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is one option the treatment of numerous AK lesions in a region of the skin, termed field cancerization. It involves the application of a photosensitizer to the skin followed by illumination with a strong light source. Topical creams, such as 5-fluorouracil or imiquimod, may require daily application to affected skin areas over a typical time course of weeks.

Cryotherapy is frequently used for few and well-defined lesions, but undesired skin lightening, or hypopigmentation, may occur at the treatment site. By following up with a dermatologist, AKs can be treated before they progress to skin cancer. If cancer does develop from an AK lesion, it can be caught early with close monitoring, at a time when treatment is likely to have a high cure rate.

Top UK Dermatologists Online Consultation

For more information on this topic please click on the links below

Link to British Association of Dermatologists article on dermatology from DermUK
Link to DermNet NZ article on dermatology from DermUK
Link to Medscape dermatology article from DermUK

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