Skip to main navigation Skip to main content Skip to footer For Medicare For Providers For Brokers For Employers Español For Individuals & Families: For Individuals & Families Medical Dental Other Supplemental Explore coverage through work How to Buy Health Insurance Types of Dental Insurance Open Enrollment vs. Special Enrollment See all topics Shop for Medicare plans Member Guide Find a Doctor Log in to myCigna
Home Knowledge Center Wellness Library Actinic Keratosis

Actinic Keratosis

Condition Basics

What is actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratosis is a skin growth caused by sun damage. It can turn into skin cancer, but this isn't common. Actinic keratoses, also called solar keratoses, are small red, brown, or skin-colored scaly patches. They are most common on the scalp, face, neck, hands, and forearms.

Your doctor can remove these growths by freezing or scraping them off or by putting medicines on them.

What are the symptoms?

Actinic keratoses are small and noticeable red, brown, or skin-colored patches that don't go away. They most often occur on the head, neck, or hands but can be found on other areas of the body. Usually more than one is present. They may:

  • Have a rough texture.
  • Itch, burn, or sting.
  • Range in size from 1 mm (about the size of the tip of a pencil) to 2 cm or larger (about the size of a peanut).
  • Be numerous, with several patches close together.
  • Be surrounded by red, irritated skin.

Actinic keratosis needs to be checked by a doctor, especially if the keratoses become painful, bleed, become open sores, become infected, or increase in size.

How is it diagnosed?

Actinic keratosis is diagnosed through a skin exam. Your doctor may use a bright light or magnifying lens to look for growths, moles, or lesions. The scalp is checked by parting the hair. If there is a chance of cancer, your doctor may take a sample of your skin and test (biopsy) it.

How is actinic keratosis treated?

Your doctor may recommend one of these treatments:

  • Cryotherapy. This involves freezing the skin growth with liquid nitrogen. There is little or no scarring. Cryotherapy can make the treated skin a lighter color than the nearby skin (hypopigmentation). This color change may not go away.
  • Medicines put on the skin (topical therapy). These include medicines like fluorouracil cream, imiquimod cream, and tirbanibulin ointment.
  • Curettage. Treatment involves shaving the growth using a spoon-shaped instrument (curette). After shaving, electrodesiccation may be done to control bleeding and destroy any abnormal cells that remain. Curettage is a quick treatment, but there may be some scarring. There may also be changes in the color (pigment) of your skin.
  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT). This uses medicine, such as aminolevulinic acid (ALA), that is put on the skin and then activated with light. The light causes the medicine to destroy the actinic keratosis.
  • Chemical peels. Chemicals are applied to destroy the top layer of skin. This is done so new skin can grow and replace damaged skin.
  • Laser resurfacing. An intense beam of light from a laser (such as the carbon dioxide laser) is used to destroy the top layer of skin. As the treated area heals, new skin grows to replace the damaged skin.

Will it become cancer?

Actinic keratosis may turn into skin cancer, but this isn't common. There is no way to find out whether actinic keratosis will progress to squamous cell carcinoma or how fast this might occur.

People who have a weak immune system have a higher risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma.

How can you prevent actinic keratosis?

You can help prevent actinic keratosis by staying out of the midday sun and wearing sun-protective clothing. And it helps to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher on exposed skin. If you've had these skin growths, you may need to see your doctor for skin checks.

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated, disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. Learn how we develop our content.

© 1995-2023 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Related Links

Skin Cancer, Melanoma Skin Changes Skin Cancer, Nonmelanoma Seborrheic Keratoses

<cipublic-spinner variant="large"><span>Loading…</span></cipublic-spinner>

Page Footer

I want to...

Get an ID card File a claim View my claims and EOBs Check coverage under my plan See prescription drug list Find an in-network doctor, dentist, or facility Find a form Find 1095-B tax form information View the Cigna Glossary Contact Cigna


Individuals and Families Medicare Employers Brokers Providers

Secure Member Sites

myCigna member portal Health Care Provider portal Cigna for Employers Client Resource Portal Cigna for Brokers

The Cigna Group Information

About Cigna Healthcare Company Profile Careers Newsroom Investors Suppliers The Cigna Group Third Party Administrators International Evernorth

 Cigna. All rights reserved.

Privacy Legal Product Disclosures Cigna Company Names Customer Rights Accessibility Non-Discrimination Notice Language Assistance [PDF] Report Fraud Sitemap Cookie Settings


Individual and family medical and dental insurance plans are insured by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company (CHLIC), Cigna HealthCare of Arizona, Inc., Cigna HealthCare of Illinois, Inc., Cigna HealthCare of Georgia, Inc., Cigna HealthCare of North Carolina, Inc., Cigna HealthCare of South Carolina, Inc., and Cigna HealthCare of Texas, Inc. Group health insurance and health benefit plans are insured or administered by CHLIC, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company (CGLIC), or their affiliates (see a listing of the legal entities that insure or administer group HMO, dental HMO, and other products or services in your state). Accidental Injury, Critical Illness, and Hospital Care plans or insurance policies are distributed exclusively by or through operating subsidiaries of Cigna Corporation, are administered by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company, and are insured by either (i) Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company (Bloomfield, CT); (ii) Life Insurance Company of North America (“LINA”) (Philadelphia, PA); or (iii) New York Life Group Insurance Company of NY (“NYLGICNY”) (New York, NY), formerly known as Cigna Life Insurance Company of New York. The Cigna name, logo, and other Cigna marks are owned by Cigna Intellectual Property, Inc. LINA and NYLGICNY are not affiliates of Cigna.

All insurance policies and group benefit plans contain exclusions and limitations. For availability, costs and complete details of coverage, contact a licensed agent or Cigna sales representative. This website is not intended for residents of New Mexico.

Selecting these links will take you away from to another website, which may be a non-Cigna website. Cigna may not control the content or links of non-Cigna websites. Details