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Actinic Keratosis - Topic Overview

What is actinic keratosis, and what causes it?

Actinic keratosis, also called solar keratosis, is a precancerous skin condition that develops in sun-exposed skin, especially on the face, hands, forearms, and the neck. It is seen most often in pale-skinned, fair-haired, light-eyed people, beginning at age 30 or 40 and becoming more common with age.

What are the symptoms?

Actinic keratoses are small and noticeable red, brown, or skin-colored patches that don't go away. They commonly occur on the head, neck, or hands but can be found on other areas of the body. Usually more than one is present. They may:

  • Have a rough texture.
  • Itch, burn, or sting.
  • Range in size from 1 mm to 3 mm or larger (about the size of a small pea).
  • Be numerous, with several patches close together.
  • Be surrounded by red, irritated skin.

Actinic keratosis needs to be evaluated by a doctor, especially if the keratoses become painful, bleed, become open sores, become infected, or increase in size.

How is actinic keratosis diagnosed?

Actinic keratosis is diagnosed through a skin examination. Your doctor may use a bright light or magnifying lens to look for growths, moles, or lesions. The scalp is examined by parting the hair. If there is a possibility of cancer, your doctor may take a sample of your skin and test (biopsy) it.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: March 12, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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