A keratosis is a dark, scaly, unattractive growth on the surface of the skin that typically shows up in your advancing years. It’s a natural part of growing older, as any old, bumpy-nosed witch in a children’s story illustration will attest.
They’re not the kind of thing you look forward to. You don’t hear people say, “I look forward to the day I can kick back and scratch my keratosis bumps.” Frankly, they are warty-looking and embarrassing. And there is a form that is considered pre-cancerous, so you will want to have them checked out when you see them.
But what are they exactly? And can they be treated?
What Is A Keratosis?
Basically, a seborrheic keratosis, generally the more pronounced form, is a growth on the skin that has a waxy, scaly feeling. They’re typically hard and elevated from the skin. They almost look like scabs or moles, but are distinct from these other skin conditions.
The color of these growths varies, ranging from tan to a darker black. And they can also vary in size, growing up to more than an inch across.
Science doesn’t know exactly what causes someone to develop these growths. Evidence shows that it’s not related to sun exposure like freckles or melanomas. They aren’t contagious and seem to become more common as you age. There is a genetic predisposition to having these, so if your relatives have seborrheic keratosis growths, you will be susceptible to having them, too.
To diagnose the condition, a doctor will do a simple examination of the skin and factor in things like your age and family history in order to judge whether it is a keratosis or a more dangerous condition like skin cancer. And to be safe, the doctor may wish to remove a bit of the tissue and examine it in a laboratory.
Is A Keratosis Dangerous?
Unlike melanomas, which are cancerous growths on the skin, seborrheic keratosis are not dangerous. There’s no risk of the growth metastasizing, or becoming skin cancer. But, there are forms of keratosis that can be dangerous.
An actinic keratosis is a generally smaller growth that usually forms on the face or the shoulders. Unlike seborrheic keratosis, which are usually solitary, actinic keratosis most often arrive in clusters of more than one. They’re caused by long term exposure to the sun. The mechanism involves the UV light from the sun’s rays. This part of the light spectrum can eventually damage the DNA inside your cells. DNA serves as a kind of blueprint, guiding your cells on how to replicate themselves.
When UV light damages the DNA, the cells being to replicate damaged versions of themselves. Eventually, these damaged cells can begin to expand rapidly, destroying the other cells of the body. And this can lead to certain forms of skin cancer.
In the early stages, these actinic growths are usually small and rough, resembling very flat warts. Over time, they can grow enough to be visible on the skin. Usually, they grow very slowly, so you may not notice any symptoms at first. But eventually, the growths may begin to feel itchy or burn.
Bottom Line: If you have a normal, age-related keratosis, there’s really no reason to worry. But that doesn’t mean that you might not want to remove them. Depending on the size and location, a seborrheic keratosis can make you selfconscious about your appearance.
The good news is that they are generally pretty easy to remove.
How Can You Treat Them?
The most important thing is to not pick or scratch at these growths, as they often bleed and the wound can become infected. If you want to remove a growth, it’s best to see a doctor. There are few different things that a doctor can do to remove them safely and easily.
The first is something called cryosurgery. Essentially, the doctor will take a container of liquid nitrogen and dip a long cotton swab inside. They will then press the swab against the growth. The extreme cold will destroy the tissue inside the growth. With time, it should blister and fall off.
Cryosurgery isn’t always effective, and it may sting a bit. But it is usually a good way to remove smaller growths.
For larger growths, the doctor may use electrocautery. In this procedure, the doctor takes a device with a long metal rod and passes electricity through it. The electricity heats the metal which the doctor then uses to burn away the growth on the skin. The heat of the metal instantly seals the wound, which prevents bleeding. But if done incorrectly, it can lead to scarring.
Laser treatment (ablation) is also available to remove a keratosis growth.
It’s always best to make sure that you see a trained dermatologist for these kinds of procedures.