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Actinic keratoses (AKs) are red or brown flat scaly lesions that are rough to touch. They occur when sufficient chronic sun exposure allows for genetically damaged epidermis to exhibit clinical lesions. All of the skin is affected (field change) with the most damaged areas expressed as discrete lesions of variable thickness and scale. AKs can be itchy, scaly, rough, sore or bleed. Shallow ulceration can develop as well as persistent sterile pustulation. An uncertain but small percentage transform into squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). This is more likely to happen in immunocompromised patients, those with a previous SCC, elderly patients and extensive moderate/severe AKs. Not all AKs need treating but they should be identified.
Advice on available treatments, sun protection, and risk of skin cancer and skin self-examination should be given. Since AKs are a marker for all types of skin cancer, the patient should be inspected on the arms, lower legs, chest, upper back, neck and head as a bare minimum examination.
All year round regular sun protection (which may include sunblock) will reduce the frequency of new visible lesions developing and mild lesions will regress.
The vast majority of AKs can be managed in primary care. To properly manage AKs, it is best to separate field change from separate lesions and stratify into mild, moderate and severe cases.
Red flag signs that should prompt referral to secondary care are:
Areas of treatment should not exceed 5cm x 5cm. Divide into sections for larger fields
Sun-protection and Self-examination advice should be given to all patients
Differential diagnosis: seborrhoeic keratosis; dermatitis; Bowen's and SCC
Fluorouracil cream 5%
Methyl-5-aminolevulinate cream (Metvix®) with Photodynamic therapy (PDT)
Sun-protection and self-examination advice
Fluorouracil with salicylic acid (Actikerall®)
Curettage and cautery (with pathology)
Combination therapy should be used when the patient presents with both individual AKs and field change, although most topical agents will deal with mild to moderate individual lesions.