Actinic Keratosis (Solar Keratosis)

  • Medical Author:
    Gary W. Cole, MD, FAAD

    Dr. Cole is board certified in dermatology. He obtained his BA degree in bacteriology, his MA degree in microbiology, and his MD at the University of California, Los Angeles. He trained in dermatology at the University of Oregon, where he completed his residency.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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How is an actinic keratosis diagnosed?

Most of the time, doctors can diagnose an actinic keratosis just by examining it. If the AK is especially large or thick, a biopsy may be advisable to make sure that the spot in question is just a keratosis and has not become a skin cancer.

There are other spots, called seborrheic keratoses, that are not caused by sun exposure and have no relationship to skin cancers. These are raised brown lesions that may appear on any area of the skin. They also often run in families.

How is an actinic keratosis treated?

The best treatment for an AK is prevention. For light-skinned individuals, this means minimizing their sun exposure. By the time actinic keratoses develop, however, the relevant ultraviolet radiation is often so far in the past that prudent preventive measures play a relatively small role. Fortunately, treatment methods are usually simple and straightforward:

  • Cryosurgery: Freezing AKs with liquid nitrogen often causes them to slough off and go away.
  • Other forms of surgery: Doctors sometimes scrape away or burn off AKs.
  • 5-fluorouracil (5-FU): Creams containing this medication cause AKs to become red and inflamed before they fall off. Although effective, this method often produces unsightly and uncomfortable skin for a period of weeks, thus making it impractical for many patients. This method is best for patients who have a great deal of sun damage and many AKs. Once the skin heals, it often looks much smoother and even-toned.
  • Imiquimod (Aldara): This immune stimulator is similar in its indications and effects to 5-FU.
  • Ingenol mebutate (Picato): Is derived from the sap of a plant of the genus Euphorbia, which is related to the poinsettia plants that are popular at Christmas time. It is helpful in the treatment of small areas, but causes significant irritation.
  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT): This therapy involves applying an agent (aminolevulinic acid [Levulan] or ALA) that sensitizes the skin to light, leaving it on for about one hour, and then exposing the skin to light that activates the chemical. This blue light is absorbed by the compound, releasing the energy as heat which is believed to destroy the actinic keratoses. Like 5-FU and imiquimod, photodynamic therapy works best for patients with many AKs. Patients need to avoid exposure to sun or intense fluorescent light for two days after treatment to prevent ongoing peeling.
  • Diclofenac (Solaraze): This cream is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), an agent related to ibuprofen (Advil, Children's Advil/Motrin, Medipren, Motrin, Nuprin, PediaCare Fever), a popular medication for headaches. Diclofenac is gentler than 5-FU or imiquimod, causing less inflammation, but must be applied for a longer period of about two months to achieve modest improvement.
  • Superficial chemical peels using trichloracetic acid (TCA) can also be effective. This procedure is performed in the doctor's office.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/23/2015

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