Understanding Actinic Keratosis

Understanding Actinic Keratosis | Spectrum Dermatology, Scottsdale

Understanding Actinic Keratosis

Many people haven’t heard of actinic keratosis even though it is a very common, and usually benign, skin condition. It is one of the most common reasons patients come to Spectrum Dermatology, though initially patients confuse actinic keratosis—or AK—with sun damage, age spots, or liver spots. AK is caused by ultraviolet (UV) damage, either from sun exposure or tanning beds, but it is different than the more mainstream brown spots most people experience as they get older or after receiving excessive sun damage.

Although AK is caused specifically by severe sun damage, the majority of AK instances are non-cancerous. However, some AK sites do develop into squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) if left untreated. This is why it is critical to know if you have AK or another type of hyperpigmentation and to undergo testing to see if the AK is pre-cancerous or not. Schedule an appointment with your dermatologist if you have any kind of spot or bump on your skin, but there are some things you can do to determine if you have AK prior to your appointment.

How Actinic Keratosis Shows Up

Do you have a rough patch on your skin, especially in an area that has seen a lot of sun? This skin imperfection might be actinic keratosis, and you can usually feel the affected spot before you see it. It is often described as feeling like sandpaper. These rough areas can be virtually any color, including skin-colored, red, pink, and even gray.

AK can also show up as a rough and scaly bump. It might be mistaken for pimples or skin irritation. Sometimes there is a collection of scaly, raised spots that look like an acne breakout that in reality is an actinic keratosis lesion. Alternatively, AK can present as a flat area that’s scaly and looks quite a bit like an age spot. This is more common in those who have more melanin in their skin.

AK on the Lips

Although AK can happen virtually anywhere on the body, it is especially common on the lips. However, it looks a little different on this part of the body. If you have dry, scaly lips that never seem to heal—or that heal and return to scaly—that might be AK. Oftentimes, AK on the lips seems a lot like bad chapping, but if there is also pallor to the dry, cracked skin it could actually be actinic keratosis. This could be on one lip or both.

AK on the lips can also look like white patches, with or without chapping or peeling. If it seems like you’ve lost spots of color on your lips, see a dermatologist immediately. Over time, that color loss might get more severe. In some cases, half or more of the lip’s color can disappear before a person sees their doctor.

Watching for Actinic Keratosis

Sometimes, actinic keratosis can look like a small horn erupting from the skin. These are the most severe cases of AK and most indicative of potential skin cancer. Bear in mind that AK has a variety of presentations, including a range of colors. Most cases of AK don’t hurt, but sometimes the lesions can itch, burn, be tender, bleed, and stick to your clothing. Ultimately, just like many skin conditions, AK can look, act, and feel many ways. Protect yourself and your skin by scheduling an appointment any time you notice something new or strange on the skin.

Those with a history of sun damage are at a higher risk for all types of skin issues including actinic keratosis and skin cancer. However, even people who are diligent about avoiding the sun and wearing sunscreen can develop AK or skin cancer. A yearly skin check performed by your dermatologist is the best way to keep your skin healthy. There are over 3,000 skin conditions, so it’s very easy for non-professionals to mistake one skin issue for another. The only way to know for certain what’s happening to your skin is by working with an expert.

If you notice a bump, lump, change in color, or anything else happening with your skin, now is the perfect time to see your dermatologist—even if you’ve had a skin check within the past 12 months. Call Spectrum Dermatology today at 480-948-8400.