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Actinic keratosis

Actinic keratosis can appear as red, pink or brown patches on your skin that can be rough or scaly. We explain how it can be treated.

specialist examining a patients skin condition using medical microscope
Actinic (or solar) keratosis is a skin condition that can develop in the top layer of skin as we age. It is primarily found on sun-exposed parts of the body. Fair-skinned people are more susceptible to it and men are more likely to develop it than women.

Actinic keratosis is a very common condition and it is estimated that over 23% of the UK population aged 60 and over are affected by these skin growths. It is a pre-cancerous condition and the risk of its developing into a type of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma (also sometimes known as SCC skin cancer) is very low.

However, this risk increases over time, especially if you are affected by large numbers of lesions, and vigilance is called for. Signs to look out for are if the patches grow, bleed or visibly change. If this happens, speak to your doctor.

Patches caused by actinic keratosis can be red, pink, brown or skin-coloured and they are rough or scaly in texture, similar to sandpaper. They can resemble warts and can vary from a few millimetres to a centimetre or so in size. They are normally asymptomatic but they can be itchy.

The cost of actinic keratosis will depend on a variety of factors, including which hospital and which consultant you choose, as well as which treatment option is the most appropriate for you.

Our fixed-price packages include the cost of your treatment and all appropriate aftercare appointments. However, any pre-surgery diagnostic tests and your consultant's outpatient appointment consultation fee are charged separately.

Our flexible payment options help you spread the cost of your payment across a time period that suits you. We offer fixed-term monthly payment plans over 10 months to five years with no deposit required. If you decide to pay over 10 months, you will pay interest-free. If you are paying for a longer period, you will pay 14.9% APR.

If you have private health insurance, actinic keratosis treatment may be covered by your provider. Speak to your insurer directly to find out.

If you have been diagnosed with actinic keratosis, or if you are worried you might have this condition, an initial consultation with one of our dermatologists is the first step towards managing the condition. Our experienced skin specialists will work quickly to diagnose the cause of your symptoms and put together a bespoke treatment plan based on your individual circumstances.

During this first appointment, your consultant will ask you questions about your symptoms, how long you've been having them and how they affect your life. They'll take a detailed medical history and ask questions about any medication you might be taking currently, as well as whether you've already had any treatment for your skin problems.

This initial consultation is a very important step in your treatment journey and you should feel able to ask as many questions as you like - however big or small. It's where you and your consultant get to know each other.

Once your consultant has made their diagnosis, and they'll talk you through the available treatment options, discussing which they think is best for you. The final decision will be made together.

If your areas of actinic keratosis are not raised and can barely be felt, the treatment of choice would be a simple moisturiser and education on meticulous sun protection.

If, on the other hand, they are raised, slightly indurated or scaly, there are a number of treatments available, both surgical and non-surgical.

Topical creams

If you have multiple actinic keratoses, you might be prescribed a cream called Efudix, which can be effective if used over a period of three or four weeks. This does cause an inflammatory reaction but your consultant will talk to you about this before they undergo this treatment so you'll know what to expect.

For larger areas of actinic keratosis, there are other creams available, and your dermatologist will advise on the best treatment for your particular needs.

Photodynamic therapy

Photodynamic therapy involves a cream being rubbed into the part of the body that is affected by actinic keratosis. Three hours later, after the cream has been absorbed by the skin, a red light is shone on the area. The red light reacts with the cream and causes a photochemical reaction which kills off the cells affected by actinic keratosis.

Laser therapy

Laser therapy is where your consultant will use a laser device to perform an ablation -the surgical removal of body tissue - on the affected area. The laser is used to remove the affected area of skin and will allow new skin to grow whilst the area heals.

Cryotherapy (freezing)

Cryotherapy is where your consultant will use a chemical called liquid nitrogen which is kept at very low temperatures to freeze the area on your body affected by actinic keratosis. The affected area is frozen for about 10 seconds to destroy the affected cells.

This procedure may cause some inflammation and blisters may appear in the area that has been treated but these will soon heal.

Curettage (scraping)

Your consultant may recommend using a technique called curettage if the area of actinic keratosis has become very thick or is raised. It may also be recommended if your consultant suspects that the area is turning cancerous.

Depending on your circumstances, a local anaesthetic maybe used to help numb any pain. Your consultant will then scrape away at the affected area and cauterize the wound to minimise bleeding and infection to the area.

The benefit of this method is that samples of the skin cells taken can be sent off to be analysed at a laboratory.

There are risks with any treatment. Still, treatment for actinic keratosis is considered low-risk and has low complication rates.

Some of the possible risks are:

  • Blistering
  • Scarring
  • Changes to skin texture
  • Infection
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Changes in skin colour to the affected area

Your consultant dermatologist will talk you through all the possible risks and complications to make sure you feel informed and comfortable before you have any treatment so that you can make a fully informed decision.

Depending on what treatment you have, you may not be able to drive yourself home from hospital. We recommend that you arrange to have a friend or loved one collect you, though we can always arrange a taxi home if you would prefer.

For a while you may feel some pain or discomfort, but you should be able to carry out most of your normal day-to-day activities after an initial period of rest.

Actinic keratosis can be caused by sun exposure. When going outside ensure you protect your skin from sun damage by using a high sun protection factor spf and avoid tanning beds.

When you choose to go private with Circle Health Group, you can benefit from:

  • Flexible appointment times and locations to fit your routine
  • The freedom to choose which hospital and consultant suit your needs
  • Personalised, consultant-led treatment plans tailored to you
  • Comfortable and safe private facilities maintained by expert multidisciplinary teams
  • Support by the same compassionate clinical team from beginning to end
  • Affordable, fixed-price packages with aftercare included
  • Flexible payment options to spread the cost of your care

To speak with a member of our advisory team about private heart care at any of our hospitals, call us on 0141 300 5009.

Content reviewed by Circle in-house team in October 2022. Next review due October 2025.

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