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Actinic Keratoses


Julia Benedetti

, MD, Harvard Medical School

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2023
Topic Resources

Actinic keratoses are precancerous changes in skin cells (keratinocytes) that are a frequent consequence of many years of sun exposure. Diagnosis is clinical. Treatment typically includes lesion-directed or field-directed therapy.

The prevalence of actinic keratoses is high and increases with age. Actinic keratoses constitute a significant risk of progression to squamous cell carcinoma Squamous Cell Carcinoma Squamous cell carcinoma is a malignant tumor of epidermal keratinocytes that invades the dermis; this cancer usually occurs in sun-exposed areas. Local destruction may be extensive, and metastases... read more Squamous Cell Carcinoma . The estimated rate of progression for an individual actinic keratosis to a squamous cell carcinoma varies widely in the medical literature, but consensus estimates most often range from < 1% to 10%. Actinic keratoses that do not progress to squamous cell carcinoma may regress or persist as actinic keratoses. Lesions that regress may subsequently recur.

In addition to many years of sun exposure, other risk factors for actinic keratoses include older age, underlying immunosuppression, blond or red hair, blue eyes, and skin type I or II (see table ).


Symptoms and Signs of Actinic Keratoses

Actinic keratoses often have adherent scales and are sometimes more easily felt than seen. Actinic keratoses can appear thickened or hypertrophic and sometimes form a cutaneous horn. They may be pink, red, or, less commonly, gray or brown. Lesions frequently develop in sun-exposed areas (eg, balding scalp, face, lateral neck, distal upper or lower extremities). Diffuse involvement of the lip is called actinic cheilitis Cheilitis (lip inflammation) Lip inflammation may be generalized, or localized to one or more ulcers or lesions. Although some swelling may be present, the main manifestation is discomfort. Lip swelling with little or no... read more Cheilitis (lip inflammation) .

Diagnosis of Actinic Keratoses

  • Clinical examination

Diagnosis of actinic keratoses is often based on visual and tactile examination; lesions feel rough and scaly on palpation. They should be differentiated from seborrheic keratoses Seborrheic Keratoses Seborrheic keratoses are superficial, often pigmented, epithelial lesions that are usually verrucous but may occur as smooth papules. The cause of seborrheic keratosis is unknown, but genetic... read more Seborrheic Keratoses , which increase in number and size with age. Seborrheic keratoses tend to appear waxy and stuck-on but can take on an appearance similar to that of actinic keratoses. Close inspection usually reveals distinguishing characteristics of the lesion. An actinic keratosis can also be distinguished from a seborrheic keratosis by the rough, gritty feel of the scale and the erythema. Unlike actinic keratoses, seborrheic keratoses also occur on non–sun-exposed areas of the body and are not precancerous.

Treatment of Actinic Keratoses

  • Lesion-directed or field-directed therapy

Treatment options depend on the number of lesions, their location, extent of photodamage, and patient preference, but typically they are divided into 2 categories:

  • Lesion-directed therapy

  • Field-directed therapy

In lesion-directed therapy, individual lesions are physically removed. This option may be better if the patient has only a few actinic keratoses, or if the patient is unable or unwilling to undergo other therapy options. Cryosurgery (freezing with liquid nitrogen) is the most common lesion-directed therapy. Curettage (scraping with a curette) is an alternative. Lesion-directed therapies have the benefit of being single, in-office procedures, but they may not address subclinical changes and have a higher risk of scarring.

In field-directed therapy, topical treatments are applied to larger, diffuse areas of involvement. Topical fluorouracil (5-FU) cream and imiquimod cream are the usual first-line drug treatments. Alternatives include diclofenac gel and tirbanibulin ointment.

These topical drugs can cause inflammation (often with redness and scaling) and pain during treatment and usually for 1 to 2 weeks afterward.

Photodynamic therapy is another type of field-directed therapy. It involves topical application of a photosensitizer (eg, aminolevulinate, methyl aminolevulinate) followed by light of a specific wavelength that preferentially affects photodamaged skin. Like topical field-directed therapy, photodynamic therapy can cause redness and scaling during treatment. More than one treatment session may be needed.

If patients do not respond to therapy, clinicians should consider doing a biopsy to rule out squamous cell carcinoma.

Treatment references

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
Adrucil, Carac, Efudex, Fluoroplex, Tolak
Aldara, Zyclara
Aspercreme Arthritis Pain Reliever, Cambia, Cataflam, Dyloject, Flector, Licart, Lofena, Motrin Arthritis Pain, PENNSAID, PROFINAC, Solaravix, Solaraze, VennGel One, Voltaren Arthritis, Voltaren Delayed-Release, Voltaren Gel, Voltaren Ophthalmic, Voltaren-XR, Xrylix II, Zipsor, Zorvolex
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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