Actinic Keratosis

Actinic keratosis (AK) is a pre-cancerous skin lesion caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Actinic comes from the latin meaning “ray,” as in the rays of the sun. AKs are the most common form of precancerous skin lesions, generally appearing on the face, bald scalp, neck, shoulders, ears, and the backs of forearms and hands. They appear on skin from frequent exposure to the sun or to artificial sources of UV light, like tanning beds.

Do I have an actinic keratosis?


AKs can be characterized by the following:


  • Thicky, scaly red patches
  • Rough red bumps and tan crusts on forehead or scalp
  • Sore, white patches on lower lip (also can be a sign of actinic cheilitis, a variant of AK)
  • Crusted red spot on cheek and ear
  • Numerous white, silvery or red scaly lesions on hands


According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sun exposure is the cause of nearly all actinic keratoses. The more time you spend outdoors and in the sun, the higher the odds of developing AKs; therefore, older people and outdoor workers are at greatest risk. 


AKs appear in men more than women, and most prevalently in individuals over age 50. 

Who's at risk?

Everyone with a history of sun-exposure is at risk.


Those with weakened immune systems, whether from chemotherapy, AIDS, organ transplantation or other factors, cannot fight off the effects of ultraviolet radiation, which increases their risk of developing actinic keratoses and skin cancers. 

What can I do about treatment?

Thankfully, if treated early, actinic keratoses can be eliminated before progressing to skin cancer. There are a variety of treatment options including freezing with liquid nitrogen, topical medications, and blue light treatments done in the office (see Blue Light Therapy).

Surgical options for actinic keratoses


Your dermatologist will suggest the best surgical option for your condition. These options can include:

  • Desiccation or curettage. Your dermatologist will remove all (or part) of your lesion with a scalpel, applying heat or a chemical agent to stop bleeding — and to kill any remaining AK cells. 


  • Laser surgery. Your dermatologist will use harsh light to destroy AK tissue.
  • Cryosurgery. Your dermatologist will apply liquid nitrogen to the tissue. The frozen skin may blister or fall off after crusting over.


Topical treatments


Depending on your condition, your dermatologist may also suggest a topical treatment. These treatments range from chemical peels to topical chemotherapies and immunotherapies. 


With these treatments, your dermatologist will treat visible (and invisible- those unapparent on exam) lesions with a minimal risk of scarring. 

Prevention is key


Above all, prevention is the best defense against pre-cancerous skin lesions and cancers. It is highly recommended to wear SPF 30 on your face daily, covering ears and neck as well. For those who will be out in the sun for prolonged periods, reapplication every 2 hours is important. Sun protective clothing and hats are also important. 


Do not use tanning beds and seek shade during the hours of 10am to 4pm. Examine skin monthly, head-to-toe.

Need help? Dermatology of Athens can help


If you suspect you may have actinic keratosis (or would like a professional opinion), we encourage you to reach out to us. We’ll examine your skin and provide a game plan for prevention, or if necessary, treatment of your skin condition.


To schedule an appointment, please call 706-353-8220 or email us at We can’t wait to care for your skin!