Actinic keratosis

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An actinic keratosis (ak-TIN-ik ker-uh-TOE-sis) is a rough, scaly patch on the skin that develops from years of sun exposure. It's often found on the face, lips, ears, forearms, scalp, neck or back of the hands.

Also known as a solar keratosis, an actinic keratosis grows slowly and usually first appears in people over 40. You can reduce your risk of this skin condition by minimizing your sun exposure and protecting your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Left untreated, the risk of actinic keratoses turning into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma is about 5% to 10%.


Usually, the first signs of actinic keratosis are rough, raised bumps on your skin. They can vary in color but often have a yellow or brown crust on top. These bumps may be:




The same color as your skin.

Symptoms may also include:


Burning, stinging or itching.

Dry, scaly lips.

Hornlike skin growths that stick out (like an animal’s horn).

Loss of color in the lips.

Pain or tenderness.

It can be difficult to distinguish between noncancerous spots and cancerous ones. So it's best to have new skin changes evaluated by a doctor — especially if a scaly spot or patch persists, grows or bleeds.


When UV light hits our skin, it can damage cells in the skin called keratinocytes. These cells live in the outermost layer of the skin and give our skin its texture. When UV light damages these cells, changes occur that cause our skin to:

Feel rough and scalyAppear discoloredDevelop bumps and horn-like growthsThe most common cause of actinic keratosis is too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light comes from the sun or indoor tanning equipment, such as tanning beds. UV light can damage your outer layer of skin cells, called keratinocytes.

Risk factors

Have red or blond hair and blue or light-colored eyes.

Have a history of a lot of sun exposure or sunburn.

Tend to freckle or burn when exposed to sunlight.

Are older than 40.

Live in a sunny place.

Work outdoors.

Have a weakened immune system.

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Actinic keratosis (AK) causes rough, scaly skin patches. Left untreated, AK can lead to a skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. The best way to prevent AK is to protect yourself from sun damage. If you notice new red or rough bumps on your skin, call your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.


The main methods of prevention of actinic keratosis are through lifestyle changes. A person should take proper precautions when outside, such as:

wearing sunscreen daily

avoiding prolonged sun exposure

covering up their skin when in direct sunlight

It is also important to remember that this condition may occur from any UV light source, including indoor tanning beds.

A person can ensure the timely diagnosis and treatment of actinic keratosis by regularly checking their skin for symptoms and contacting a healthcare professional if they discover any changes.