Actinic keratosis (solar keratosis) is characterized by patches of flaky discolored skin. The precancerous condition is caused by long-term sun or tanning bed exposure. It most often appears in commonly exposed areas including the lips, other areas of the face, the backsides of hands, the forearms, the neck and the head.
The condition most often strikes those over 40 and can take years to appear. Those with light skin, hair and eyes are particularly susceptible as are those with compromised immune systems.
The patches are usually red or pink in color, but they can also look brown, tan or light gray and feel firm and/or gritty. They are usually flat or somewhat raised, but they can have a scaly, flaky wart-like appearance. The skin that surrounds the patches often appears thin and delicate. The lesions may also burn and itch.
They should be examined by a doctor, especially if they grow or bleed. Cancerous lesions can be difficult to differentiate from benign skin growths, and a biopsy is required to rule out squamous cell cancer.
Prolonged exposure to the sun causes scaly patches on the face and body, which range in size from a pencil point to its eraser. There is sometimes a prickling pain with the patches. Others at risk of contracting the scaly patches include those whose immune systems have been suppressed due to organ transplants, and psoriasis patients treated with an ultraviolet light therapy along with the drug psoralen.
It takes years, even decades, for the patches to suddenly appear from nowhere. Unfortunately, they are precancerous. While a relatively small percentage of people with that kind of sun exposure might be likely to develop skin cancer, the risk can be decreased further by making sure to take preventative measures. Some types of skin cancer are destructive to the body area in which they live, but they do have a chance to spread, which makes them dangerous.
Treatment may involve using liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy) to freeze and remove the lesions. When growths are numerous the condition is commonly treated with topical medication containing fluorouracil.
Side effects of topical treatments result in a temporary worsening appearance. It can also cause itching, flaking and burning. Actinic keratosis can become cancerous if left untreated.
Prevention techniques are what people have been told since childhood about staying safe in the sun – even if you didn’t realise than actinic keratosis might await you after all those years.