beth israel deaconess medical center a harvard medical school teaching hospital

To find a doctor, call 800-667-5356 or click below:

Find a Doctor

Request an Appointment

left banner
right banner
Smaller Larger

Actinic Keratosis

En Español (Spanish Version)

Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


Actinic keratosis (AK) is abnormal growth of the skin. It results in a rough, scaly, or crusted patch of skin. AK tends to occur on sun-damaged skin.

AK is not cancer but it can sometimes change to squamous cell skin cancer. Treatment includes removing lesions and monitoring for skin cancer.

Actinic Keratosis


Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


AK is caused by long term excessive sun exposure. Ultraviolet rays from sunlight can cause skin damage. Over time, this damage can cause abnormal growth of the skin, which may lead to AK or other disorders.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of AK include:

  • Fair skin color
  • Easy sunburning
  • Extra exposure to sun
  • Occupations or pastimes in sunlight such as farmer, lifeguard, or athlete in outdoor sports


Symptoms may include:

  • Spotted or smeared red, thinning skin
  • Rough, scaly, or crusted patches


You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

A biopsy of the lesion may be done. The skin will be closely examined for cancer.


Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. AK lesions increase your risk of skin cancer. The lesions are usually removed to decrease this risk. The lesion will also be monitored for signs of cancer.

The exact method of removal will be determined by the number and location of the lesions.

AK may be removed with:

  • Surgery
  • Cryosurgery
  • Chemical peel
  • Photodynamic therapy

Medications may also be applied over the skin. More than one treatment may be required. Over time, the medication will remove the AK. Medication may be an option for people with multiple AKs.

The procedures and medications will remove AK and allow healthy skin to grow in its place. Most treatments have some risk of scarring or discoloration of the skin.


To help reduce your chance of AK:

  • Avoid sun exposure.
  • Protect your skin when outdoors. Wear long sleeves, long pants or a long skirt. Use a wide-brimmed hat, especially during the middle of the day.
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.




  • Actinic keratosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated February 21, 2014. Accessed August 8, 2014.
  • Actinic keratosis. The Skin Cancer Foundation website. Available at: Accessed August 8, 2014.
  • Jeffes EW III, Tang, EH. Actinic keratosis. Current treatment options. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2000;1(3):167-179.
  • Rivers JK, Arlette J, Shear N, et al. Topical treatment of actinic keratoses with 3.0% diclofenac in 2.5% hyaluronan gel. Br J Dermatol. 2002;146(1):94-100.
  • Stockfleth E, Meyer T, Benninghoff B, Christophers E. Successful treatment of actinic keratosis with imiquimod cream 5%: a report of six cases. Br J Dermatol. 2001;144(5):1050-1053.
  • Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: Accessed October 20, 2014.

Search Your Health