Actinic Keratosis: What Every Lafayette Patient Should Know

You have a rough, dry, scaly patch of skin that you’ve recently noticed on your lip or the back of your hand.  Dry skin is certainly nothing new.  Perhaps you moisturize or use some topical ointment in the hopes that it will soon clear up on its own.  But odd, new growths on the skin should always be investigated further.  Most people know that a new or changing mole is a troublesome sign that should be checked out by a dermatologist, but worrisome skin conditions come in more than just moles.

Sometimes, dry, scaly, rough patches of skin, particular on areas that experience excessive sun exposure, are identified as Actinic Keratoses (AKs).  AKs may start out harmless enough, but they have the potential to become far more serious.  Up to 10 percent of AKs will eventually develop into the second most common form of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma.  Fortunately, early treatment of the lesions can prevent this process.

How do Actinic Keratoses Develop?

Nearly every case of an actinic keratosis can be directly attributed to sun exposure, although some may be linked to industrial chemicals or extensive exposure to X-rays.  Because sun damage is cumulative, AKs are most commonly seen among older patients with many years of sun exposure behind them.  However, thanks to the advent and increased popularity of tanning beds, many patients are experiencing these problems at a much younger age.  While only about 10 percent of AKs develop into cancer, it is impossible to know in advance which ones are safe and which are not, making treatment at the onset imperative.

How are Actinic Keratoses Treated?

Removal of AKs can be done in a number of different ways.  A board-certified dermatologist can help you determine which option is best suited for your own needs.  Some of the more common treatment options include:

Photodynamic Therapy (PDT) – PDT treats AKs with the use of photosensitizers, topical medications that are applied to the skin, along with the application of a particular wavelength of light.  Combined, these two therapies produce a form of oxygen that kills precancerous cells. 

Cryotherapy – If you’ve ever heard of treatment to “freeze off” a wart or other growth, then you have heard of cryotherapy.  This option uses liquid nitrogen, applied to the AK to freeze away, or kill, the lesion. 

ED&C – Electrodesiccation and curettage is a surgical technique commonly used on squamous or basal cell carcinomas but is also effective for pre-cancerous lesions such as AKs.  First, a curette is used to scrape away the damaged cells from the surface.  Then, electrocautery or desiccation is used to kill the cells that remain underneath.  This process may need to be repeated three or more times to ensure full removal.

Never before have patients had to so vigilantly monitor their skin.  Years of ignorance about the extent of damage caused by UV rays has led to generations of patients who sought out the sun or artificial tanning sources without consideration of the skin damage that occurred.  Now, of course, we know just how dangerous it can be to leave our skin unprotected.  While, you may slather on the sunscreen now, the years past have left their mark.  Watch carefully for any signs of change in your skin, and if you believe that you have an actinic keratosis, visit one of our dermatologists to discuss options for treatment and removal.