Actinic Keratosis: Signs and Symptoms

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Signs of actinic keratosis

The brown spots on this man's face may look like age spots, but they're actually actinic keratoses. Left untreated, some actinic keratoses (AKs) turn into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. That's why it's important to know if you have any of these precancerous growths on your skin. The following pictures show some diverse ways that it can appear.

9 ways a precancerous growth can appear on your skin or lips

  • A rough-feeling patch on skin:One or more rough, scaly bumps that may look like pimples or spots of irritated skin.
  • Rough, scaly bumps that may looks like pimples:Many scaly, raised spots on the skin that may look like a rash or acne breakout.
  • Several scaly, raised spots that may look like a rash or acne breakout
  • A raised, rough-feeling patch that may be red, pink, skin-colored, or gray
  • Flat, scaly area that looks like an age spot. AKs more commonly look like age spots in people who have skin of color.
  • A dry, scaly lip that never heals (or heals and returns).
  • Scaly, white patches on one (or both) lips:White patches on your lips can be a sign that you have a precancerous condition on your lips.
  • Loss of color on lips
  • A growth that looks like an animal's horn:When an actinic keratosis appears in this form, it often indicates that the person has a higher risk of developing a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.

What color is an actinic keratosis?

As the above pictures show, AKs come in many colors. You may see a scaly pimple- like bump or patch of skin that is:

  • Red or pink
  • Skin-colored
  • Gray
  • Yellow
  • Brown or tan
  • White

Does an actinic keratosis hurt?

While most people see only a change to their skin, an AK can:

  • Itch
  • Burn or sting
  • Feel tender or painful when touched
  • Stick to your clothing, causing discomfort
  • Bleed

If you find a change on your skin that could be an actinic keratosis, protect your health by seeing a board-certified dermatologist. Should that change be an AK, you have a greater risk of developing skin cancer. Being under the care of a board-certified dermatologist helps to find skin cancer early when its highly treatable.

While having skin that's been badly damaged by the sun or indoor tanning greatly increases your risk of developing AKs, other things can increase your risk.

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