Symptoms and causes

Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of an actinic keratosis include:

  • Rough, dry or scaly patch of skin, usually less than 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter
  • Flat to slightly raised patch or bump on the top layer of skin
  • In some cases, a hard, wartlike surface
  • Color as varied as pink, red or brown
  • Itching or burning in the affected area

Actinic keratoses are found primarily on areas exposed to the sun, such as your face, lips, ears, hands, forearms, scalp and neck.

When to see a doctor

It can be difficult to distinguish between noncancerous spots and cancerous ones. So it's best to have new skin changes evaluated by a doctor — especially if a spot or lesion persists, grows or bleeds.

Causes

An actinic keratosis is caused by frequent or intense exposure to UV rays, from the sun or from tanning beds.

Risk factors

Anyone can develop actinic keratoses. But you may be more likely to develop the condition if you:

  • Are older than 40
  • Live in a sunny climate
  • Have a history of frequent or intense sun exposure or sunburn
  • Have red or blond hair, and blue or light-colored eyes
  • Tend to freckle or burn when exposed to sunlight
  • Have a personal history of an actinic keratosis or skin cancer
  • Have a weak immune system as a result of chemotherapy, leukemia, AIDS or organ transplant medications

Complications

If treated early, almost all actinic keratoses can be cleared up or removed before they develop into skin cancer. If left untreated, some of these spots may progress to squamous cell carcinoma — a type of cancer that usually isn't life-threatening if detected and treated early.