What is actinic keratosis?

  • Written by Sima Medical and Cosmetic Clinic.
An actinic keratosis (ak-ti-nik ker-ah-TOE-sis), or AK, is a rough, dry, scaly patch or growth that forms on the skin. An AK forms when the skin is badly damaged by ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or indoor tanning. Most people get more than one AK. When you have more than one AK, you have actinic keratoses, or AKs.

Symptoms of actinic keratosis:

• Rough-feeling patch on skin that cannot be seen.

• Rough patch or growth that feels painful when rubbed.

• Itching or burning.

• Lips feel constantly dry.

People who are most likely to get AKs have one or more of the following traits:

• Fair skin.

• Hair color is naturally blond or red.

• Eyes are naturally blue, green, or hazel.

• Skin freckles or burns when in the sun.

• 40 years of age or older.

• Weak immune system

• Work with substances that contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), such as coal or tar. Roofers have a higher risk of getting AKs because they work with tar and spend their days outdoors.

Pre-cancerous spots usually appear after age 40. People who live in places that get intense sunlight all year, such as Florida and Southern California, may get AKs earlier; here in Washington; we accumulate sun damage due to the long hours of sunlight and taking vacations to those extra sunny locations to ward off the winter/rainy depression.  Actinic keratoses often appear much earlier in people who use tanning beds and sun lamps.

You can prevent actinic keratoses by protecting your skin from the sun and never using tanning beds or sun lamps. When UV rays hit our skin, the rays damage the DNA in our skin. When we are young, the skin can repair some of the damage. Over time, the damage accumulates, and the skin is less able to repair itself. We eventually see UV-damaged skin. If UV rays continue to hit the skin, people get pre-cancerous lesions.

AKs are very common and one of the most frequent reasons for seeing a provider specializing in dermatology (skin).

Anyone who has many AKs should have dermatologic care and have bi-annual skin exams. Most people who have many AKs continue to get new AKs for life. AKs are considered precancerous. Left untreated, AKs may turn into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.  AKs can be treated before they become skin cancer. If skin cancer does develop, it can be caught early when treatment often cures skin cancer.

A sun block is ideal between April and October on a daily basis.  As creatures of habit, applying sun block each morning is the best assurance you will have it on when you need it.

Frequent application, every two hours, when you are fully exposed to sunlight and near water, on a boat or skiing in the mountains.

Use of Titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide with percentages above 10 percent provide the best protection.

For more information, please contact Sima Medical and Cosmetic Clinic at

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