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Actinic Keratosis

What is Actinic Keratosis?

Actinic Keratosis (AK) is a precancerous lesion of the outer layer of the skin (the epidermis) and is caused by long-term exposure to sunlight. These sun spots appear to be scaly or crusty bumps on the surface of the skin. AKs are discolored and sometimes tender to the touch. Common locations for AKs are the face, ears, scalp, back of the neck, upper chest, hands, and forearms.

All individuals exposed to sunlight are at risk of developing AKs, yet fair-skinned people after years of sun exposure and individuals who are immunosuppressed are at a higher risk. AKs can become life threatening if left untreated; they can progress into squamous cell carcinoma, a serious type of skin cancer.

Treatment Options

Our dermatologists often diagnose and treat AKs based on clinical appearance but, at times, a skin biopsy is needed.

Common treatment options include cryosurgery (freezing the lesion with liquid nitrogen), topical chemotherapy creams, photodynamic therapy (combines a drug with a specific type of light to kill cancer cells), chemical peels, and laser resurfacing therapy.


  • There are an estimated 5.2 million AK visits annually.
  • Sixty percent of AK visits are made by the older population due to cumulative sun exposure.
  • Forty to sixty percent of squamous cell carcinomas begin as untreated AKs.
  • Sunburns received between the ages of 2 to 18 also cause AKs.

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