The effects of sun damage on your skin are far-reaching and can lead to much more serious problems than sunburn. If you’re prone to sun damage, or even if you take preventative measures to protect your skin, understanding the signs of precancerous skin conditions can stop skin cancer before it starts.
The second most common form of skin cancer, known as squamous cell carcinoma, is a dangerous and prevalent cancer that can prove fatal. It is important to understand what to look for so that this form of cancer can be treated before long-term effects occur.
Like most forms of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma is caused by sun exposure and subsequent sun damage. Sun damage might sound like severe sunburn, but the reality is that a tan is also sun damage. A small component of sunlight is made up of ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light is the main cause of skin cancer, damaging the DNA in our skin but penetrating no further. The damage causes skin cells to produce extra melanin, a pigment which helps protect skin from further damage by UV rays.
In short, skin tanning is the body’s way of trying to protect itself, but the damage was already done. America’s obsession with tan skin and the process of tanning with UV light (which is produced by tanning beds) have led to an increase in skin cancer statistics. A majority of people who live to 80 will develop or have had skin cancer. While it’s often associated with older people, you can get skin cancer as early as your twenties. A series of bad sunburns in childhood can also lead to cancer decades later.
While squamous cell carcinoma can be dangerous, it is usually detected early and can be effectively treated. Early detection is often owed to the appearance of actinic keratosis, a precancerous lesion that can occur anywhere on your skin. While it can sometimes be unsightly, appearing as a scaly or crusty bump on the skin, it can also be hard to spot. This is because the color of the skin can remain unchanged. In many cases, skin will discolor, becoming red, tan, pink or even lighter.
Skin affected by actinic keratosis may itch or burn. Actinic keratosis (AK) can be painful when rubbed. If you have actinic keratosis, you are much more likely to have it again. Many people can have actinic keratosis in more than once place on their body at once. It can occur anywhere, especially if sun damage occurred frequently in that area. The lesions can disappear and may be dismissed as a simple rash. They will usually reappear in a few days or weeks when the skin is damaged again. Even if your symptoms clear up, it’s very important to diagnose and treat AK early.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the uncontrolled growth of skin cells. In almost half of squamous cell carcinoma cases, the individual previously had actinic keratosis. AK is essentially the first wave of uncontrolled skin cell growth and it signals that there is more to come. Squamous cell carcinoma is similar in appearance to AK, but more extreme. They appear as warts, open sores, scaly patches or crusty elevated growths with an indent at their center.
Other signs of skin damage that don’t appear as AKs include wrinkles, changes in skin tone, loss of elasticity, liver or age spots, and freckles. These can all appear independent of or alongside actinic keratosis. These symptoms can also be a warning sign of skin cancer.
The sun is overhead in New England anywhere between nine and almost fifteen hours a day, depending on the season. It is unavoidable, yet far from harmless. As scientific knowledge on solar radiation grows, the effects of sunlight on our skin only becomes more distressing.
Nevertheless, the sun is a large part of our lives. Backyard barbeques, skiing trips, and walks to the grocery store put our skin in danger. It might sound scary, but there are a great deal of options to protect our skin from the sun and still enjoy life. Using sunscreen and lip balm with an SPF of 15 or greater will keep UV light from penetrating the skin. Wearing protective clothing and broad brimmed hats will also help protect skin. Avoid peak daylight hours between 10 A.M. and 4 P.M and limit time in the sun at any time of day. Check your skin frequently for signs of actinic keratosis.
The most common course of treatment for AK is cryotherapy. This process destroys visible AKs by freezing them. It can be conducted without any anesthesia. The skin will blister, then peel off in days or weeks. Other types of non-surgical treatment include chemical peels and photodynamic therapy. Chemical peels destroy the top layers of your skin and must be performed by a dermatologist.
Photodynamic therapy works similarly, but uses intense light or lasers to destroy the top layers of skin. New, healthy skin should grow in its place. Surgical options are available and will be necessary in more severe or harder to remove cases of actinic keratosis. Curettage and electrosurgery are the two most common routes for surgical treatment. These treatments work by removing the affected skin or cauterizing it. Additionally, there are a host of medical creams that can treat actinic keratosis and many are considered chemotherapy drugs. Generally, these drugs work by destroying affected skin and helping the immune system destroy the precancerous cells.
Thankfully, there are many ways to treat actinic keratosis and prevent skin cancer from ever occurring. More treatment methods are being researched, in hopes of providing a more efficient and simple treatment. The most important part in prevention is detection, so pay attention to your skin, especially if it’s been damaged frequently.
If sun damaged skin appears suspect to you, or it feels wrong, it’s important to err on the side of caution. Anyone can develop actinic keratosis and skin cancer, so it’s crucial that you pay attention to the warning signs, reach out to your dermatologist today.
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