Understanding Actinic Keratosis -- Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on July 26, 2021

What Are the Treatments for Actinic Keratosis?

A number of treatments are available for actinic keratosis, a condition in which too much sun exposure leads to lesions (keratoses) that may become cancerous. They include:

  • Cryosurgery. Liquid nitrogen "freezes" the surface skin, which causes some skin redness and sometimes blistering until the area is replaced by new skin. This is the most commonly used treatment for actinic keratosis. It is a quick office procedure.
  • Surgical removal and biopsy. The lesion may be removed and examined if there is a possibility it has become cancerous.
  • Chemotherapy. A topical cancer medicinal cream called fluorouracil is applied to the skin lesion or the entire sun-damaged area. It takes around 4 to 6 weeks to work. Usually the skin turns red and blisters before new skin appears.
  • Photodynamic therapy. A chemical is applied to the skin. Then the skin is exposed to a light that activates the chemical to destroy the abnormal skin cells. There can be burning, stinging, and changes in pigmentation of the skin.
  • Chemical peel. A chemical solution is applied to the skin to cause blistering and peeling away of the actinic keratoses. Temporary redness and swelling will likely occur.
  • Dermabrasion. This uses a handheld device to "sand" the skin and improve its appearance. It can be used to treat large lesions that are often too big to treat with topical treatments. It leaves the skin red and raw and can be a painful procedure. A topical numbing ointment, nerve blocks, or other pain medications are often used.
  • Immunomodulator therapy.Imiquimod cream, ingenol gel, or diclofenac gel works much like fluorouracil to selectively rid the skin of abnormal cells. There may be redness, itching, swelling, crusting, and peeling..
  • Microtubule inhibitor.For use on the face and scalp, this medicatoin is applied topically to stablizes the damage skin and clear the lesions. You should avoid getting it near your eyes.

Show Sources

American Academy of Dermatology.
Department of Clinical Social Medicine, University of Heidelberg, Germany.
News release, LEO Pharma Inc.


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