Warning bells: actinic keratosis

Actinic keratosis is an early warning sign of skin cancer. These rough, scaly skin lesions are found on areas of the skin that have been exposed to the sun over time. Although they are not considered to be a form of skin cancer, they can turn into skin cancer if they aren't treated promptly.

Like skin cancer, actinic keratosis is caused by too much exposure to UV light, such as from sunlight. People with fair skin that burns easily are at a higher risk of actinic keratosis.

How can you tell if you may have actinic keratosis? Check your skin, especially any sun-exposed areas, for rough, scaly lesions that may be skin-coloured, red, pink, grey, or brown. The lesions are often covered with a crust. Actinic keratosis is often found on the face, scalp, ears, neck, arms, and hands. If you notice anything that fits this description, or any other skin changes you're concerned about, check with your doctor.

If your doctor diagnoses actinic keratosis, there are a number of treatment options. Surgery can be used to remove the lesions, either by cutting out the lesion, using liquid nitrogen to "freeze" the lesion, using a laser to destroy the cells of the lesion, or using bursts of electricity to dry out the lesion and make it easy to remove. Medications, such as fluorouracil and imiquimod, can be applied to the skin to help clear up the lesions. Photodynamic therapy, which uses a special light source in combination with medication, can also be used to treat actinic keratosis.

How can you prevent actinic keratosis? The same way you can protect yourself from skin cancer – by avoiding exposure to UV light and monitoring on your skin. So using sunscreen, avoiding the peak sun hours (11 am to 4 pm), covering up with clothing and sunglasses, and doing monthly skin self-exams can all reduce your risk of actinic keratosis, or help catch it early if it does develop.

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