Actinic keratosis – Precancerous Growths
An actinic keratosis (AK), also known as a solar keratosis, is a crusty, scaly growth caused by damage from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation-sun exposure or indoor tanning. Actinic keratosis is considered precancerous growth because if left alone, it could develop into a skin cancer, most often the second most common form of the disease, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). More than 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year are linked to indoor tanning, including about 168,000 squamous cell carcinomas. Outdoor tanning also has its dangers.
The most common type of precancerous skin lesion, actinic keratosis appear on skin that has been frequently exposed to the sun or to artificial sources of UV light, such as tanning machines. In rare instances, extensive exposure to X-rays can cause them. Above all, they appear on sun-exposed areas such as the face, bald scalp, ears, shoulders, neck and the back of the hands, legs and forearms. They are often flat and sometimes elevated, rough in texture and resemble warts. Most become red, but some are light or dark tan, white, pink and/or flesh-toned. They can also be a combination of these colors. Sometimes it is hard for a person who never saw a dermatologist and was educated on skin cancer and sun prevention to recognize them.
Actinic keratosis detection and treatment
In the beginning, actinic keratosis are frequently so small that they are recognized by touch rather than sight. They feel as if you were running a finger over sandpaper. Patients may have many times more invisible lesions than those appearing on the surface. They eventually grow and become more visible. Most often, actinic keratosis develop slowly and reach a size from an eighth to a quarter of an inch or they can form a patch. Early on, they may disappear only to reappear later. Occasionally they itch or produce a pricking or tender sensation. They can also become inflamed and surrounded by redness. In rare instances, actinic keratosis can even bleed.
Anyone who has many actinic keratosis should be under a dermatologist care or go to clinic on the regular basis. Dermatology clinic professionals have many effective treatments for eliminating actinic keratosis. Early treatment at the clinic can eliminate almost all actinic keratosis before they become skin cancers. If an actinic keratosis is suspected to be an early cancer, the physician or dermatology clinic provider may take tissue for biopsy by shaving off a portion of the actinic keratosis with a scalpel to confirm the diagnosis.
Depending on the nature of the growth and the patient’s age and health, various treatment options are available for actinic keratosis. Cryosurgery treatment is done when healthcare provider in the clinic or dermatologist applies liquid nitrogen to the actinic keratosis to freeze the tissue. Later, the lesion and surrounding frozen skin may blister or become crusted and fall off. Curettage and desiccation is an alternative treatment method when healthcare provider scrapes or shaves off the lesion under local anesthesia. Sometimes the dermatologist or clinic may prescribe a topical medication that can treat precancerous lesions with a minimal risk of scarring but could be costly. Treatment with topical medications like 5-fluorouracil (Carac, Efudex, Fluoroplex) is a form of topical chemotherapy. Also some other medications can be used: Picato, Solaraze, Imiquimod (Aldara, Zyclara). This treatment with topical immunotherapy stimulates the immune system to produce interferon, a chemical that attacks cancerous and precancerous cells.
Anyone can develop actinic keratosis over time. Actinic keratosis may develop after a number of years of UV light exposure. There are risk factors that make people MORE LIKELY to develop actinic keratosis.
These factors include:
- age with people 40 and over at the highest risk
- a long history of sunburn or extreme exposure to sun
- living in a sunny environment
- using tanning beds
- having a history of developing actinic keratosis
- having lighter color hair or eyes
- having a tendency to burn in the sun
The main methods of prevention of actinic keratosis are through lifestyle changes and a person being aware of their exposure to UV rays. A person should take proper precautions when outside, such as wearing hats, loose-fitting clothes that cover most areas of the body, and sunscreen SPF 30-50. They may want to avoid being in the sun for prolonged periods of time, as well. People should avoid excessive exposure to UV light from tanning either indoors or outdoors. It is important to remember that this condition may occur from any source of UV light, including indoor tanning beds.
Actinic keratosis is a marker of severe skin changes and damage to the skin, as a result of UV exposure. These changes put a person with actinic keratosis at high risk for developing skin cancer. People who catch actinic keratosis early tend to have a good chance of removing the risk of developing cancer. However, if left untreated, actinic keratosis may develop into skin cancer. Once treated for actinic keratosis, a person will probably need to schedule yearly dermatologist appointments, to screen for recurrence and check for other signs of skin cancer.