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Actinic keratosis: sequelae and treatments: recommendations from a consensus panel.

Actinic, or solar, keratoses (AKs) are commonly encountered intraepidermal, sun-induced skin lesions. (1,2) AKs are markers of cumulative ultraviolet (UV) skin exposure and should be considered the precursors of at least 60% of invasive squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the skin (3-6); up to 40% of SCC are estimated to rise de novo. As part of a disease continuum, it is not surprising that AK and SCC share the same genetic alterations, morphology, and are frequently contiguous (FIGURE 1).


A growing body of histologic evidence suggests that AK should be regarded as early SCC in situ, (7-9) since AK is frequently the initial lesion in the sequence of tumor progression leading to SCC. (8) Biopsy sampling of sun-damaged skin, AK lesions, and SCC provides evidence of histologic similarities and shows the cellular progression of AK to SCC. (9) One study used step-wise biopsy sections to determine the presence of cutaneous malignant tumors in patients who were initially diagnosed by biopsy sampling as having AK. (8) On further analysis, histologic findings of deeper sections showed that 20% of patients were found to have malignant lesions (SCC or basal cell carcinoma [BCC]). BCC and SCC, both nonmelanoma skin cancers (NMSCs), are the most common skin cancers in the world. (10)

It is impossible to determine which AK lesions may progress to SCC, (11) and predictions on the progression vary considerably. Two well designed, prospective longitudinal studies suggest that the yearly rate of progression of an AK lesion to invasive SCC in an average-risk person in Australia is between 8 and 24 per 10,000, (3,12) while a study with data from Arizona found a rate of progression of 12% over 5 years. (13) Additionally, about 25% of AK lesions spontaneously recede without treatment, and some SCC arise de novo.


Actinic keratosis is likely underdiagnosed and underreported, partially because separating AK from SCC is a challenge and partially because it is difficult to track, since reports of AK diagnosis are not included in cancer registries. In northern hemisphere populations, 11% to 25% of adults have at least one AK, compared with 40% to 60% of adult Australians, who live closer to the equator. (10) Epidemiologic studies from Australia, Wales, Sweden, and the northern United States demonstrate that the incidence of AK and NMSC is increasing in both men and women, with an average increase of 3% to 8% since the 1960s. (14-16) Perhaps more alarming is that the incidence is increasing in persons younger than 40 years of age. (16)


Risk factors for NMSC are also risk factors for AK because of the direct relationship of AK to SCC. The majority of all skin cancers are thought to be caused by high intensity or cumulative exposure to UV radiation. (10,15) There are no "safe" UV rays: UV-B is the primary carcinogen, while UV-A is synergistic. (14)

General risk factors

A culture that promotes tanning, as well as clothing styles that expose skin, increased outdoor activities, and increased longevity, contribute to UV radiation exposure. (14) More than 80% of NMSCs occur on areas of the body that are frequently exposed to sunlight, such as the face, balding scalp, the posterior aspect of the neck, ears, and dorsal side of the arms and hands. (10,15) Therefore, people who work outdoors or who live closer to the equator are at greater risk. (15) However, because of the use of tanning beds, AK is increasingly seen in "unexposed areas.'' (14)

Advancing age is another strongly related risk factor for increased prevalence of AK, partially because age is a proxy for total UV exposure. (15) Skin phenotype is a variable for increased risk, as fair-skinned individuals who tan poorly are more frequently affected by NMSC than individuals with darker skin types. Men are at greater risk for AK than women.


Immunosuppression by iatrogenic means, such as transplant or other uses of immunosuppressive drugs, or inherent means, such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia or human immunodeficiency virus infection, is more strongly linked to SCC than to AK. Skin cancer is the most common malignancy facing immunosuppressed patients, particularly those in the post-organ-transplant setting. (17,18) It is estimated that skin cancer affects 30% to 40% of transplant recipients within 20 years posttransplant. (17,18)


The most important aspect of AK and skin cancer management is prevention. (19) Primary care providers should encourage patients to wear clothing and hats that offer sun protection, to use sunscreens with a sun protection factor of 30 that are effective against UV-A and UV-B, and to avoid sun during its most intense hours (between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM). A small, controlled trial found that daily application of sunscreen decreased the number of AKs by 51% over 2 years. (20)

A 5-minute skin exam can be used to screen for sun-induced damage. This can be done casually as part of a typical routine. When greeting a patient with a handshake, use the opportunity to palpate the dorsa of the patient's hand with your left hand. At this close proximity, inspect the face or neck for any lesions. If any are spotted, palpation of the lesion and further examination for others are warranted. When one AK is seen, it should be assumed that other, perhaps invisible, AKs exist.


Triaging skin lesions is a complex and difficult task. The size, shape, color, texture, location, and growth pattern of skin lesions must be considered along with patient history. (21) Diagnosis of AK is made even more difficult because there are many clinical variants (FIGURE 2). Differentiation of these types has important implications, since the treatment varies somewhat by type.


The differential diagnosis of unpigmented AK includes warts and seborrheic keratoses, while pigmented AK includes BCC and malignant melanoma. Referral to a dermatologist should be considered for those with AK of the lip (actinic cheilitis) since metastasis occurs commonly if SCC arises in this area.

One of the main challenges in the differential diagnosis of AK is the separation of early SCC from AK, since SCC has the potential to metastasize. Therefore, identifying invasive SCC is critical, because misdiagnosing a lesion as AK might allow SCC to progress. However, even among dermatologists, there is a high intraobserver variation in the diagnosis of AK. (1,22)

A pilot study was designed to determine if a software triaging system would help primary care providers more accurately diagnose and stage skin cancer. (21) When diagnoses were made without the use of the software, physicians incorrectly triaged 36.7% of lesions, while use of the software reduced the frequency of incorrect triage to 13.3%. However, in this computer simulation, physicians were not able to feel the lesion, which is one important aspect in skin diagnoses.

Visual inspection of a lesion

The initial appearance of an AK lesion may be skin colored to pink, red, or brown; lesions on darker skin may be pigmented. (23) The lesion may progress to a white scale or rough macula. AK lesions may cause itching and often are poorly demarcated, ranging in size from 1 to 3 mm to several centimeters.

Palpation of a lesion

The importance of skin palpation cannot be overemphasized and, in fact, may be more important than visual inspection in making the diagnosis. Characteristically, AKs are easily palpated and have a different feel, often described as soft, rough, or "gritty," (7,23) from healthy skin. AKs eventually progress to scaly, thick lesions. (10) Usually, there are multiple AK lesions in an area, and they may be surrounded by other solar skin damage.


Skin biopsy specimens taken from sites with long-term exposure to the sun commonly have histologic features of AK, which may appear alone or may be associated with various benign and malignant lesions. (8) Sun-damaged skin may exhibit dermal solar elastosis and nuclear crowding but only minor nuclear abnormalities or epidermal thickening. (9) As sun damage progresses to AK, scaly erythematous plaques appear with histologic features including epidermal thickening, dysplastic nuclei, and superficial parakeratosis. Dysplasia involving all layers of the epidermis defines carcinoma in situ, which may be followed by tumor cell invasion of the basement membrane, the hallmark of SCC. (9)


After appropriate diagnosis, treatment choice depends somewhat on lesion size, morphology, location, and likelihood of patient compliance. (20) There are 2 main approaches to treating AK lesions: lesion-directed therapy or field-directed therapy.

Lesion-directed therapy

Lesion-directed therapy typically involves a physical treatment, such as surgical or ablative methods, targeted to one lesion (19,23-26) (TABLE 1). Physical treatments generally produce lesion resolution in one patient encounter, but some follow-up may be needed to monitor postprocedure healing. Of the physical treatments available, cryotherapy is considered the standard treatment for removal of individual or isolated AK lesions. (11) This therapy is very effective for superficial lesions, but less so for thick lesions or those on the dorsum of the hand. (27) Two recent clinical trials involving liquid nitrogen spray observed lesion response rates at 3 months of 68% (complete and noncomplete) (28) and 75% (complete). (29)

Cryotherapy is easy to learn; the key is to apply the cryotherapy agent for a sufficient period of time. Liquid nitrogen, for example, must be applied to the lesion to cause basement membrane separation; application of liquid nitrogen for up to 20 seconds is often needed for less superficial lesions. Cryotherapy results in erythema, edema, and blister formation. Possible side effects include burning pain, hypopigmentation or hyperpigmentation, and scarring. Cryotherapy is contraindicated if the diagnosis is uncertain.

Curettage and electrodesiccation is another physical therapy often used for a single AK lesion. This approach is less commonly done in primary care than in other settings and is best for small, well-demarcated lesions. (24)

Field-directed therapy

The other general approach to AK is field-directed therapy, in which a topical agent is applied to multiple lesions or to an entire area at risk (23,30-35) (TABLE 2). Topical treatments are advantageous from a primary care perspective because of their broader applicability for field-directed therapy and because some of the agents (imiquimod and 5-fluorouracil [5-FU]) reveal and treat subclinical lesions. (23) All of the topical therapies must be used for several weeks for lesion resolution, and they typically cause notable erythema, burning, and ulceration at the application site. (30-33)

The intensity of the site reaction indicates the likelihood of clearance, that is, the more severe the erythema and ulceration, the more efficacious the treatment is expected to be. However, if the local effects become too burdensome, a prescriber may offer a "drug holiday" or cycle the application to allow more time between applications. Using a topical steroid or moisturizer between applications may offer some benefit, but this approach has not been studied thoroughly. Some tips to improve compliance are shown in TABLE 3.


Imiquimod 5% cream (AldaraTM) is an immune response modifier currently indicated for the treatment of AK and superficial BCC lesions of 2 cm or less. Imiquimod is also indicated for the treatment of genital and perianal warts. Its proposed pharmacologic mechanism is up-regulation of cell-mediated immune response in the skin leading to apoptosis of the tumor cells. (36) Sequential biopsies of superficial BCCs, followed by gene expression analysis, have documented changes in expression for about 1300 different genes following treatment with imiquimod. (37)

The most important consequence of these actions appears to be activation of the innate immune system. Increased innate immune system activity demonstrated by imiquimod is characterized histologically by epidermal invasion by macrophages (mostly neutrophils), and clinically by epidermal erosion. (36,37) T-cell activation also has been documented following imiquimod treatment. This occurs later in the course of treatment (after innate immune system activation) and may not be a major factor in the elimination of tumor cells. T-cell activation may play a subsequent role in immunosurveillance. (36,37)

Imiquimod efficacy data

The clinical data from imiquimod studies is compelling and interesting for its pharmacologic mechanism, as well as its clinical benefits. Data suggest that imiquimod induces an "immune memory" that serves to minimize recurrence of AK lesions. A 12- to 18-month follow-up study of patients who had demonstrated complete clearance of AK lesions showed that imiquimod treatment prevented AK recurrence in 75.3% of patients treated 3 times per week and 57.4% of patients treated 2 times per week. (38) Even in patients who demonstrated AK recurrence, the number of recurrent lesions was small.

Data also indicate that imiquimod treats subclinical as well as clinically apparent lesions. Two phase 3, double-blind studies evaluated the efficacy of imiquimod 5% cream compared with vehicle cream in the treatment of AK lesions on the face and balding scalp. (39) A total of 436 participants were randomized to either imiquimod 5% or vehicle cream applied once a day, 2 days per week for 16 weeks. At 8 weeks, the complete clearance rate was 45.1% for the imiquimod group and 3.2% for the vehicle group (FIGURE 3). The partial (at least 75% clearance) clearance rate was 59.1% for the imiquimod group and 11.8% for the vehicle group.

It also appears that the greater the erythematous response with imiquimod, the larger the number of AK lesions that are being attacked (FIGURE 4). A study by Salasche and colleagues evaluated the use of imiquimod in AK treatment using a cycle-therapy regimen in which 4-week treatment periods (once-daily application 3 times/week) alternated with 4-week rest periods. (34) In this open-label study, 25 patients with between 5 and 20 AK lesions on the forehead, scalp, and/or cheek were treated with up to 3 full cycles (treatment plus rest period). Serial AK lesion counts were obtained at 2-week intervals during the study. During the first treatment cycle, imiquimod treatment "revealed" subclinical lesions (eg, increased number of lesions at weeks 2 and 4). However, lesions continued to clear (ie, reduction in AK lesion count) during the 4-week rest period. Continued clearance during the rest period may be the result of immune memory or immunosurveillance established by prior imiquimod treatment. (34)



5-Fluorouracil (Efudex[R], Fluoroplex[R], Carac[R]) is an antineoplastic drug that has been used with good success for multiple AK lesions. Available in various strengths and formulations, 5-FU 5% is indicated for AK, although the prescribing information also states it "may be useful" for superficial BCC. (32) A 10-fold less concentrated formulation, 0.5%, is indicated only for solar AK. (33) 5-FU is especially recommended for patients with multiple lesions or for those with tumors in sites not appropriate for cryotherapy or surgical excision. (32) Contraindications to 5-FU include pregnancy and high-risk or invasive tumors. (24)

For AK lesions, 5-FU (1% or 2% on the face and 5% elsewhere) is applied twice daily until superficial ulceration occurs (usual duration is 2 to 4 weeks). (32,33) Topical 5-FU is generally effective in more than 90% of patients who can tolerate it and has the advantage of treating clinically undetectable AK with minimal scarring. The anticipated skin reaction with 5-FU follows a 4- to 6-week pattern of initial inflammation and erythema, progressing into vesiculation and erosion, and finally reepithelialization (32) (FIGURE 5). To reduce inflammation until complete healing occurs, administration of the 5-FU can be followed in 15 minutes by a low-potency topical corticosteroid cream. However, the discomfort, pruritus, ulceration, and soreness related to the expected skin reaction are the most common adverse events. The pain and unsightliness from these reactions can be severe enough to impact patient tolerability and compliance. (23) Various approaches have been tried to reduce the severe adverse events. At least one study provides evidence that a reduction in dosing frequency produces less irritation and similar efficacy, but time to healing was increased. (40)


Patient preference for 5-FU has been clinically evaluated. One study showed that patients preferred the 0.5% concentration compared with a 5% formulation, primarily because of tolerability. (41) Another study demonstrated that patients preferred a chemical peel using Jessner's solution and 35% trichloroacetic acid to 5-FU, because the chemical peel required only a single application and caused less skin reaction. (42)

The combination of 5-FU 0.5% and cryosurgery has been investigated in 144 patients with 5 or more visible or palpable AK lesions on the face. (43) Patients were randomized to receive 5-FU 0.5% or vehicle cream once daily for 7 days. At the 4-week follow-up, residual lesions were treated with cryosurgery. At week 4, the lesion count was reduced by 62% in the 5-FU group compared with 29% in the vehicle group. The addition of cryosurgery increased the reduction in lesion count at 6 months to 67% and 46%, respectively. Significantly more patients in the 5-FU group than in the vehicle group achieved total lesion clearance at 4 weeks (17% vs 0%) and 6 months (30% vs 8%) (FIGURE 6).



Diclofenac (Solaraze[R] Gel) is an nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that inhibits the conversion of arachidonic acid (AA) to prostaglandins (the mechanism believed to underlie the analgesic properties of NSAIDs). Activation of the AA cascade may be involved in the promotion of NMSCs. (44) Topical diclofenac is currently indicated only for treatment of AK and is applied as a 3% gel twice daily over 12 weeks of treatment. (31) The recommended duration of therapy is 60 to 90 days, although complete healing of the lesion may not be evident for up to 30 days following the cessation of therapy. (31) In several studies, diclofenac produced complete clearance of AK lesions in 30% to 50% of patients. (31,45) Adverse events include application-site reactions and pruritus, which are rarely severe enough to cause treatment discontinuation. Contact sensitization is common with diclofenac, and patients are advised to avoid sun exposure. (31)


A main treatment goal in primary care is to ensure that the patient has a good outcome by minimizing the risk of progression of AK to invasive SCC. Therefore, patient follow-up is important, particularly when treating AK as it can recur or progress to SCC. The primary decision point in AK diagnosis is the appearance of a single lesion versus multiple lesions. Lesion-directed treatment may be considered for a single lesion, but when there is evidence of extensive photodamage additional subclinical AK lesions are likely, and field therapy also should be considered.

In patients with multiple lesions, field therapy should be a strong consideration as an adjunct to lesion-directed ablation since field therapy is the only modality capable of addressing these foci. Finally, in an area harboring a significant number of AK lesions, regional topical therapy is warranted.

It is not fully understood whether an existing AK transforms/progresses to invasive SCC or if a particularly aggressive clone of mutated cells is predestined to evolve directly into invasive SCC. It is not possible to predict which AK will progress into SCC; therefore, treating all AK lesions makes sense. Considerations for treatment choice are the size and location of the lesions and likelihood of patient compliance with a topical medication.

Patients who should be considered for referral include those with actinic cheilitis, as well as those with AK lesions following treatment since biopsy is recommended.

Key points and recommendations

* Accumulating evidence indicates that actinic keratosis (AK) should be regarded as early squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) confined to the epidermis (SCC in situ). (SOR: C)

* Predictable risk factors for AK and SCC include ultraviolet exposure, age, male sex, and immunosuppression. (SOR: A)

* Two main approaches to treating AK are lesion-directed therapy, typically surgical or ablative methods targeted to one lesion, and field-directed therapy, typically topical drugs applied to multiple lesions or an entire area at risk, (SOR: A)

* Cryotherapy, the most common lesion-directed therapy, is very effective and reasonably well tolerated. (SOR: A)

* Imiquimod and 5-fluorouracil are the most effective field-directed therapies. (SOR: A)

* If there is evidence of extensive photodamage, field-directed therapy should be considered given the likelihood of additional subclinical AKs, (SOR: C)


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(2.) Wolf JE Jr, Taylor JR, Tschen E, Kang S. Topical 3.0% diclofenac in 2.5% hyaluronan gel in the treatment of actinic keratoses. Int J Dermatol. 2001;40:709-713.

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(4.) Mittelbronn MA, Mullins DL, Ramos-Caro FA, Flowers FP. Frequency of preexisting actinic keratosis in cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. Int J Dermatol. 1998;37:677-681.

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(8.) Carag HR, Prieto VG, Yballe LS, Shea CR. Utility of step sections: demonstration of additional pathological findings in biopsy samples initially diagnosed as actinic keratosis. Arch Dermatol. 2000;136:471-475.

(9.) Carpenter PM, Linden KG, McLaren CE, et al. Nuclear morphometry and molecular biomarkers of actinic keratosis, sun-damaged, and nonexposed skin. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2004;13:1996-2002.

(10.) American Academy of Dermatology Web site. Actinic keratoses and nonmelanoma skin cancer. Available at: Residents/MedStudCoreCurr/DCActinicKer-NoMelCancer.htm. Accessed March 6, 2006.

(11.) Stockfleth E, Meyer T, Benninghoff B, et al. A randomized, double-blind, vehicle-controlled study to assess 5% imiquimod cream for the treatment of multiple actinic keratoses. Arch Dermatol. 2002;138:1498-1502.

(12.) Marks R, Foley P, Goodman G, Hage BH, Selwood TS. Spontaneous remission of solar keratoses: the case for conservative management. Br J Dermatol. 1986;115:649-655.

(13.) Moon TE, Levine N, Cartmel B, et al. Effect of retinol in preventing squamous cell skin cancer in moderate-risk subjects: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. Southwest Skin Cancer Prevention Study Group. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 1997;6:949-956.

(14.) Hemminki K, Zhang H, Czene K. Time trends and familial risks in squamous cell carcinoma of the skin. Arch Dermatol. 2003;139:885-889.

(15.) Diepgen TL, Mahler V. The epidemiology of skin cancer. Br J Dermatol. 2002;146(suppl 61):1-6.

(16.) Christenson LJ, Borrowman TA, Vachon CM, et al. Incidence of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas in a population younger than 40 years. JAMA. 2005;294:681-690.

(17.) Hampton T. Skin cancer's ranks rise: imnmnosuppression to blame. JAMA. 2005;294:1476-1480.

(18.) Kanitakis J, Alhaj-Ibrahim L, Euvrard S, Claudy A. Basal cell carcinomas developing in solid organ transplant recipients: clinicopathologic study of 176 cases. Arch Dermatol. 2003;139:1133-1137.

(19.) Stulberg DL, Crandell B, Fawcetr RS. Diagnosis and treatment of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. Am Fam Physician. 2004;70:1481-1488.

(20.) Naylor MF, Boyd A, Smith DW, Cameron GS, Hubbard D, Neldner KH. High sun protection factor sunscreens in the suppression of actinic neoplasia. Arch Dermatol. 1995;131:170-175.

(21.) Gerbert B, Bronstone A, Maurer T, Hofmann R, Berger T. Decision support soft ware to help primary care physicians triage skin cancer: a pilot study. Arch Dermatnl. 2000;136:187-192.

(22.) Venna SS, Lee D, Stadecker MJ, Rogers GS. Clinical recognition of actinic keratoses in a high-risk population: how good are we? Arch Dermatol. 2005;141:507-509.

(23.) Stengel RM, Stone S. Sun damaged skin: diagnosis and treatment of nonmelanoma skin cancer. Common Skin Diseases. 2003;19-23.

(24.) Nguyen TH, Ho DQ. Nonmelanoma skin cancer. Curr Treat Options Oncol. 2002;3:193-203.

(25.) Coleman WP III, Yarborough JM, Mandy SH. Dermabrasion for prophylaxis and treatment of actinic keratoses. Dermatol Surg. 1996;22:17-21.

(26.) Piacquadio DJ, Chen DM, Farber HF, et al. Photodynamic therapy with amino levulinic acid topical solution and visible blue light in the treatment of multiple actinic keratuses of the face and scalp: investigator-blinded, phase 3, multicenter trials. Arch Dermatol. 2004;140:41-46.

(27.) Jeffes EW III, Tang EH. Actinic keratosis. Current treatment options. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2000;1:167-179.

(28.) Freeman M, Vinciullo C, Francis D, et al. A comparison of photodynamic therapy using topical methyl aminolevulinate (Metvix) with single cycle cryotherapy in patients with actinic keratosis: a prospective, randomized study. J Dermatolog Treat. 2003;14:99-106

(29.) Szeimies RM, Karrer S, Radakovic-Fijan S, et al. Photodynamic therapy using topical methyl 5-aminolevulinate compared with cryotherapy for actinic keratosis: a prospective, randomized study. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2002;47:258-262.

(30.) Aldara [prescribing information]. St. Paul, Minn: 3M Pharmaceuticals; 2004.

(31.) Solaraze Gel [prescribing information]. Fairfield, NJ: Doak Dermatologics; 2006.

(32.) Efudex [prescribing information]. Costa Mesa, Calif: Valeant Pharmaceuticals North America; 2005.

(33.) Carat [prescribing information]. Berwyn, Pa: Dermik Laboratories; 2003.

(34.) Salasche SJ, Levine N, Morrison L. Cycle therapy of actinic keratoses of the face and scalp with 5% tupical imiquimod cream: an open-label trial. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2002;47:571-577.

(35.) Berman B, Ricotti CA Jr, Cazzaniga A, Davis SC. Determination of the area of skin capable of being covered by the application of 250 mg of 5% imiquimod cream. Dermatol Surg. 2004;30:784-786.

(36.) Dummer R, Urosevic M, Kempf W, Hoek K, Hafner J, Burg G. Imiquimod in basal cell carcinoma: how does it work? Br J Dermatol. 2003;149(suppl 66):57-58.

(37.) Urosevic M, Maier T, Benninghoff B, S1ade H, Burg G, Dummer R. Mechanisms underlying imiquimod-induced regression of basal cell carcinoma in vivo. Arch Dermatol. 2003;139:1325-1332.

(38.) Lee PK, Harwell WB, Loven KH, et al. Long-term clinical outcomes following treatment of actinic keratusis with imiquimod 5% cream. Dermatol Surg. 2005;31:659-664.

(39.) Lebwohl M, Dinehart S, Whiting D, et al. Imiquimod 5% cream for the treatment of actinic keratosis: results from two phase III, randomized, double-blind, parallel group, vehicle-controlled trials. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2004;50:714-721.

(40.) Labandeira J, Pereiro M Jr, Valdes F, Toribio J. Intermittent topical 5-fluorouracil is effective without significant irritation in the treatment of actinic keratoses but prolongs treatment duration. Dermatol Surg. 2004;30:517-520.

(41.) Levy S, Furst K, Chem W. A pharmacokinetic evaluation of 0.5% and 5% fluorouracil topical cream in patients with actinic keratosis. Clin Ther. 2001;23:908-920.

(42.) Lawrence N, Cox SE, Cockerell CJ, Freeman RG, Cruz PD Jr. A comparison of the efficacy and safety of Jessner's solution and 35% trichloroacetic acid vs 5% fluorouracil in the treatment of widespread facial actinic keratoses. Arch Dermatol. 1995;131:176-181.

(43.) Jorizzo J, Weiss J, Furst K, VandePol C, Lew SF. Effect of a 1-week treatment with 0.5% topical fluorouracil on occurrence of actinic keratosis after cryosurgery: a randomized, vehicle-controlled clinical trial. Arch Dermatol. 2004;140:813-816.

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Brian Berman, MD. PhD

Professor of Dermatology and Internal Medicine

University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

Miami, Florida

Leah Bienstock, PA-C

All Care Family Practice

Hawthorne, New Jersey

Image Dermatology

Montclair, New Jersey

Louis Kurilzky, MD

Clinical Assistant Professor

University of Florida

Gainesville, Florida

E.J. Mayeaux. Jr. MD, DABFP, FAAFP

Professor of Family Medicine

Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology

Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center

Shreveport, Louisiana

Stephen K. Tyring, MD. PhD, MBA


Departments of Microbiology & Immunology, Dermatology, and Internal Medicine

University of Texas Health Science Center

Houston, Texas
Lesion-directed therapy: Physical treatments for actinic keratoses

                                              Curettage and
                   Cryotherapy                Electrodesiccation

Description        Destroys solar keratosis   Based on the difference
                   which resides in the       in feel between tumor
                   epithelium                 (friable, easily scraped
                                              away) and healthy dermal
                   Use requires experience    tissue. Proceeds until
                                              healthy dermis is
                   Freeze times determine     reached on all
                   AK response:               perimeters.
                     39% for <5 sec
                     83% for >20 sec          Requires experience

                   BCC: 60-120 sec            Electrodesiccation
                                              involves tissue
                                              destruction at margins,
                                              which helps eliminate
                                              residual tumor

Place in therapy   Standard treatment for     Often used for a single
                   isolated AK lesions        AK

                   Most appropriate for       Best applied to well-
                   small lesions with well-   demarcated, noninvasive
                   demarcated borders         tumors

                   Thin lesions may respond
                   better than thick

Adverse events/    AEs include                AEs are rare with well-
Cautions           postoperative pain,        performed C&E.
                   blistering,                Preservation of healthy
                   hypopigmentation,          tissue is excellent
                   numbness/peripheral        substrate for healing,
                   nerve injury for several   minimizing scarring
                   months posttreatment
                   Healed cryolesions prone   recurrent tumor, punch-
                   to sunburn and require     biopsied tumor, invasive
                   sunscreen                  SCC, hair-bearing sites,
                                              tumors that reach
                   Nonspecific tissue         subcutaneous fat because
                   destruction; can be        fat cannot be
                   difficult to control       distinguished on the
                                              basis of feel

                   Chemical Peel              Photodynamic Therapy

Description        Superficial peel with      Photosensitization of
                   dermabrasion or chemical   skin using
                   peel lie,                  aminolevulinic acid
                   trichloroacetic acid       which is converted to
                   chemexfoliation)           heme precursor (requires
                                              14-18 h)
                   Requires prospective
                   studies                    Treatment with blue
                                              light induces cytotoxic

Place in therapy   Useful in treating large   Indicated for mild-to-
                   areas with multiple        moderate AK on face
                   keratoses                  and/or scalp

                   Low recurrence first       Not widely used for AK
                   years postprocedure
                                              Complete clearance of AK
                   Gradually diminishes       lesions in 73% of
                   with time, 54% clear at    patients (30% required
                   5 y                        2nd treatment)

Adverse events/    Associated complications   Pain may be significant
Cautions           are rare and tend to be
                   mild with an experienced   Stinging/burning during
                   and skilled operator       treatment

                                              Erythema and edema for
                                              1 to 4 wk posttreatment


AE, adverse events; AK, actinic keratoses; BCC, basal cell carcinoma;
C&E, curettage and electrodesiccation Stulberg DL, et al. Am Fam
Physician. 2004;70:1481-1488; Stengel RIM, Stone S. Common Skin
Diseases. 2003;19-23; Nguyen TH, He DQ. Curr Treat Options Oncol.
2002;3:193-203; Coleman WP, et al. Dermatol Surg. 1996;22:17-21;
Piacquadio DJ, et al. Arch Dermatol. 2004;140:41-46.

Field-directed therapy: Topical drugs for actinic keratoses

                  5-fluorouracil (Efudex[R],   Diclofenac
                  Fluoroplex[R], Carac[R])     (Solaraze[R] Gel)

Mechanism         Interferes with DNA and      Inhibits cyclooxygenase
                  RNA synthesis                and up-regulation of
                                               the arachidonic acid

Dosing regimen    Twice daily until            Twice daily for 60-90
and application   ulceration occurs (about     days
                  2-4 wk)

                  Apply with nonmetal
                  applicator and gloves

Expected          Complete clearance in ~50%   Complete clearance in
clearing          of patients                  30%-50% of patients

                  Minimal scarring

Medication        Treats clinically            May be less irritating
benefits          undetectable AK              than 5-FU

Other notes       Efficacy reduced by          Use with caution in
                  incomplete dosing due to     patients with the
                  intolerable adverse events   aspirin triad

Cost *            Fluoroplex 1% cream, 30 g:   Solaraze 3% gel, 50 g:
                  $120.01 Carac 0.5% cream,    $138.32
                  30 g: $126.06

                  Imiquimod (Aldara[TM])

Mechanism         Up-regulates cell-mediated immune
                  response in the skin

Dosing regimen    AK: 2X per wk for 16 wk
and application
                  BCC: 5X per wk for 6 wk

                  Wash off after 8 h

                  One sachet is expected to cover 386 [cm.sup.2]

Expected          Complete clearance in about 45%
clearing          of patients

                  Minimal scarring

Medication        Treats clinically undetectable AK
                  Continued clearing during rest

                  Reduced recurrence

Other notes       Cycle therapy with rest periods if
                  irritation becomes unbearable

                  Excellent compliance and 82%
                  complete clearance were demonstrat-
                  ed in a pilot study (25 patients) of
                  application: 3X/wk for 4 wk followed
                  by a 4-wk rest period--repeat for any
                  remaining AK (up to 3 cycles). (34)

Cost *            Aldara 5% cream, 12 packets: $169.99

There are no head-to-head comparison trials of the drugs for actinic

5-FU, 5-fluorouracil; BCC, basal cell carcinoma

*, Accessed 4/14/2006.

Stengel RM, Stone S. Common Skin Diseases. 2003;19-23; Aldara
[prescribing information]. St. Paul, Minn: 3M Pharmaceuticals; 2004;
Solaraze Gel [prescribing information]. Fairfield, NJ: Doak
Dermatologics; 2006; Efudex [prescribing information]. Costa Mesa,
Calif: Valeant Pharmaceuticals North America; 2005; Carac [prescribing
information]. Berwyn, Pa: Dermik Laboratories; 2003; Salasche SJ, et
al. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2002;47:571-577; Berman B, et al. Dermatol
Sorg. 2004;30:784-786.


Tips to improve compliance with
topical field-directed therapy

* Explain side effects before patient begins therapy
* Show pictures of expected side effects and expected
* Give the patient a sense of control
* Keep treatment options simple
* Inform the patient that there is minimal or no scarring


Complete and partial response
to imiquimod

                     Imiquimod   Vehicle

Complete Clearance      45           3

Partial Clearance       59          12

Lebwohl M, et al. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2004;50:714-721.

Note: Table made from bar graph.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Clinical Update
Author:Berman, Brian; Bienstock, Leah; Kuritzky, Louis; Mayeaux, E.J., Jr.; Tyring, Stephen K.
Publication:Journal of Family Practice
Article Type:Disease/Disorder overview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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