sun damage

Don’t Let Sun Damage Become Skin Cancer: Actinic Keratosis Treatment Options

Skin cancer is increasingly prevalent, with sun damage being a significant contributor. One of the earliest signs of potential skin cancer is actinic keratosis, a precancerous skin lesion caused by prolonged sun exposure. Understanding and addressing actinic keratosis early is critical to preventing its progression to more severe forms of skin cancer.

This article delves into what actinic keratosis is, its causes, symptoms, dangers, and the treatment options available to keep your skin healthy and cancer-free.

What Is Actinic Keratosis?

Actinic keratosis is a skin condition that causes flaking and crusty patches or bumps on sun-exposed skin. Common areas of the body affected are the face, ears, neck, back, arms, hands, and lips. It is a progressive disease that, while not contagious, is considered a precancerous condition, meaning it has the potential to develop into skin cancer if left untreated.

Those at risk for these precancer cells have a history of excessive unprotected exposure to sunlight, have fair skin, live near the equator, have a weakened immune system, or spend most of their time outdoors.

Causes of Actinic Keratosis

  • Unprotected sun exposure
  • Excessive use of tanning beds
  • Geographic location near the equator
  • Phototherapy
  • Radiation treatment

Signs and Symptoms of Actinic Keratosis

  • Lesions of 2.5 cm in diameter
  • Flat or raised bumps
  • Tan, pink, red, or dark brown patches on the skin
  • Rough, dry, or scaly skin
  • Itchiness
  • Bleeding
  • Tender

The Dangers of Untreated Actinic Keratosis

While actinic keratosis is not cancerous, neglecting it can lead to more severe health issues. According to clinical research, actinic keratosis can lead to squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). This is a form of skin cancer that has been prevalent in 10% to 15% of those with multiple actinic keratosis skin lesions.

As actinic keratosis is a type of sun damage to the cells, serious skin conditions such as basal cell carcinoma (BCC), actinic cheilitis, melanoma, and Merkel cell carcinoma can develop. Although SCC is generally not as dangerous as melanoma, it can still spread to other parts of the body and become life-threatening.

Early diagnosis and treatment of AK are essential to prevent this progression and maintain optimal skin health.

Treatment Options for Actinic Keratosis

When it comes to treating actinic keratosis, there are several effective options available. Dermatologists are skilled in selecting the most appropriate treatment based on the patient’s specific condition. Here are some common treatment methods:


Cryotherapy is the most common treatment for actinic keratosis. A medical professional will apply liquid nitrogen to the growth, causing it to freeze and eventually fall off. This method is quick and effective but may cause temporary redness, swelling, and blistering. The skin cells begin to heal naturally where the lesion once was.

Chemical Peel

A chemical peel involves applying a solution to the affected area, which causes the top layer of skin to peel away and be replaced with new, healthy skin. In most cases, a medium chemical peel is used to target the layers of a skin lesion. Chemical peels result in redness, tenderness, and possible burning sensation while collagen production is stimulated to produce new skin cells.

Topical Medications

Topical medications such as imiquimod and fluorouracil are used to destroy the tissue where the actinic keratosis exists. These medications stimulate the immune system to attack the abnormal cells or inhibit their growth. While effective, these treatments may cause redness, itching, and irritation.

Photodynamic Therapy (PDT)

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a two-step treatment that uses the thermal energy of laser technology combined with a photosensitized drug. The light energy activates the medication to destroy the abnormal cells. There can be an immediate mild burning or tingling of the targeted area with redness and flaking of the skin in the days following the procedure.

Surgical Excision (Less Common)

Surgical excision is used in cases where other treatments have not been successful or if the actinic keratosis is severe. As an outpatient procedure, this method is typically reserved for larger or more resistant lesions and involves cutting away the affected area. While highly effective, it may leave a scar.

Benefits of Seeing a Dermatologist for Actinic Keratosis

Consulting a dermatologist is crucial for the proper diagnosis and treatment of actinic keratosis. Dermatologists are trained to accurately identify actinic keratosis lesions and distinguish them from other skin conditions. As the lesions occur in various stages, regular checkups allow the dermatologist to diagnose the condition early.

A dermatologist can also recommend the most appropriate treatment option based on your skin type, the extent of the lesions, and other individual factors.

Squamous cell cancer development can be successfully treated if caught early. You must see a dermatologist if you experience bleeding, a burning sensation, itchiness, or sensitivity on or near a developing lesion.

Regular check-ups with a dermatologist ensure that any new lesions are detected early, and existing ones are monitored for changes. Dermatologists also provide valuable advice on sun safety and skin care to prevent future occurrences of actinic keratosis and other sun-related skin issues.

Sun Safety Tips to Prevent Actinic Keratosis

  • Limit sun exposure during peak hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
  • Wear protective clothing, a hat, and sunglasses
  • Apply sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher daily, even on cloudy days
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours and again after swimming or excessive sweating
  • Avoid tanning beds 

Consult a Dermatologist Near You for Actinic Keratosis

If you suspect you have actinic keratosis or have been recently diagnosed with this skin condition, schedule an appointment at Heart Lake Health Centre to speak to a dermatologist in Brampton. We offer safe and effective treatment for actinic keratosis, along with other skin issues such as acne, eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis.

Our experienced and knowledgeable dermatology team uses the latest scientific-based research and advanced therapies to diagnose, manage, and treat your skin. Most of the procedures we perform are covered by OHIP.

Contact us today at (905) 846-9255 to speak to one of our representatives and book an appointment to see a doctor at our walk-in clinic.

Heart Lake Health Center

For the past 25 years, Heart Lake Health Centre has been providing trusted medical services with dedicated industry professionals. Our team is combined of doctors who specialize in family medicine, urology, physical medicine, dermatology, pediatrics, podiatry, and cardiology. At Heart Lake Health Centre, our top priority is the health of you and your family’s. You can rely on our healthcare professionals to ensure an A-grade experience.