Florida has the unenviable distinction of being the skin cancer capital of the United States. While the Sunshine State offers good weather and a desirable lifestyle, excessive sun exposure often leads to skin problems and sometimes even cancer.
It is estimated that over 58 million Americans have actinic keratoses (AK), also referred to as solar keratosis, the most common type of skin pre-cancer. Actinic keratoses are dry, scaly patches that form on areas of the skin that are frequently exposed to the sun. The most common places that an AK will develop are the scalp, face, forearms, and back of the hands. Actinic keratoses vary in size, from as small as the head of a pin to larger than a quarter, and often feel like sandpaper to the touch, and range in color from skin-toned to reddish-brown. An AK may appear alone or, in many cases, in groups that can go undetected for some time. They may occasionally itch or become tender, especially after sun exposure.
Pre-cancerous Actinic Keratoses
Actinic keratoses are considered PRE-CANCEROUS by many physicians and have the potential to become a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). In fact, 40-60% of squamous cell skin cancers begin as untreated AKs.
Therefore, you should be diligent when inspecting your skin after any amount of sun exposure. Since actinic keratoses result from chronic sun exposure, those with AKs are at risk for developing other types of skin cancer, such as basal cell carcinoma or melanoma.
Treating Actinic Keratoses
AKs are more frequently seen on people over the age of 40, who have fair skin, blonde or red hair, freckles, and years of sun exposure. Fortunately, when detected in early stages, actinic keratoses are treatable. If you have an increased risk for developing actinic keratoses and skin cancer, you can reduce your risk by performing frequent skin self-exams and maintaining a great relationship with your dermatologist.
Along with several safe and effective medications, the following are treatment options for eliminating actinic keratoses:
- Cryosurgery uses liquid nitrogen to freeze off the lesions. It is fast, has a high cure rate, and is well-tolerated by most people. There may be a very brief period of stinging when the liquid nitrogen is first applied, but anesthesia is not required.
- Shave removal is a procedure during which a scalpel is used to remove the lesion and obtain a specimen for testing.
- Curettage is often used to remove hard, thickened actinic keratoses. In this procedure, a small, round, sharp instrument (called a curette) is used to scrape the actinic keratosis, either removing a piece of it for biopsy or removing the entire lesion.
- Lasers deliver an intense light focused on the lesion, removing it along with the top layer of skin. The finely controlled nature of laser removal makes this a useful option for actinic keratoses on delicate skin, such as the lips (actinic chelitis), or in narrow, hard-to-reach places (such as behind the ears).
- Photodynamic therapy uses a substance that is applied to the skin that makes the AK lesions very sensitive to light. A laser or light is then directed onto the skin that destroys the lesions.
After a positive diagnosis, the type of treatment will depend on the number, size and location of the lesions, the age and medical history of the patient, the results of prior treatments (if any), and the personal preferences of the patient. To prevent further complications, the dermatologist may recommend a skin biopsy to ensure that the lesions aren’t cancerous.
If you find any unfamiliar spots on your skin, you should have them checked by a dermatologist immediately. For more information on actinic keratoses and skin cancer call Riverchase Dermatology to speak with one of our knowledgable team members at 1-800-591-3376.