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Actinic Keratosis - Topic Overview

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How is it treated?

Your doctor may recommend one of these treatments:

  • Freezing the skin growth with liquid nitrogen (cryosurgery) to destroy it. Cryosurgery (also called cryotherapy) can cause mild pain that can last up to 3 days. Healing typically takes 7 to 14 days. And there is little or no scarring, though some people with darker skin have permanent skin color lightening. This procedure can be done in your doctor's office.
  • Scraping and using electric current (curettage and electrosurgery). The skin is numbed, and the growth is scraped off using a spoon-shaped instrument (curette). After scraping, electrosurgery may be done to control bleeding and destroy any remaining abnormal cells. Curettage is a quick treatment, but it can cause scarring. Sometimes a thick scar, or keloid, develops after curettage treatment. A keloid can be itchy or grow larger over time but it doesn't require medical treatment.
  • Shaving the growth with a surgical blade (shave excision). This is done to remove the growth and check the cells for basal or squamous cell carcinoma. Healing typically takes 7 to 14 days. There may be some scarring and changes in the color (pigment) of your skin.
  • Peeling the skin with chemicals (chemical peel). This is done so new skin can grow and replace damaged skin.
  • Resurfacing the skin with laser (laser resurfacing). An intense beam of light from a laser (such as the carbon dioxide or CO2 laser) is used to destroy the top layer of skin. As the treated area heals, new skin grows to replace the damaged skin.
  • Treating the skin with medicines that are put on the skin, such as fluorouracil (5-FU), imiquimod (Aldara), ingenol mebutate (Picato), and diclofenac (Solaraze).
  • Using medicine and light to kill cells (photodynamic therapy, or PDT). PDT uses medicine, such as aminolevulinic acid (ALA), that is put on the skin and then activated with light. The light causes the medicine to destroy the actinic keratosis.

Will actinic keratosis progress to cancer?

Actinic keratosis may turn into skin cancer, but this isn't common. There is no way to find out whether actinic keratosis will progress to squamous cell carcinoma or how fast this might occur. Keratoses on the ear and lip are at the highest risk of developing into cancer because of the sensitivity of the ear and lip to sun exposure.

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