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Shining a light on precancerous skin cells

Created date

April 22nd, 2014

Actinic keratosis is a precancerous skin condition caused by sun exposure. Certain types of these lesions—which appear as small rough and scaly areas of skin—can turn into squamous cell skin cancer, so detecting and treating them early is imperative. People with fair skin; red or blond hair; and blue, green, or hazel eyes are at a higher risk of actinic keratosis. 

One safe and effective treatment, called phototherapy (PDT), eliminates areas of actinic keratosis. A topical product—called a photosensitizing agent—is first applied to the skin, which stays on for a few hours or overnight. Then a blue or red light is shined onto the skin and causes a chemical reaction that destroys the abnormal skin cells. This type of PDT can be done on an outpatient basis. Side effects include mild stinging or burning during the procedure, and skin may appear red and inflamed for up to a month.

Other treatments

There are also other types of PDT that use a chemical injected into the bloodstream to detect and kill certain types of cancer cells in skin and other tissues throughout the body. Along with causing chemical reactions, research shows that this type of PDT might work by triggering the immune system to attack the abnormal cells, or by destroying blood vessels that supply them. 

For certain types of cancers, PDT can be as effective as surgery or radiation, and it has no lasting side effects. Not everyone, however, is a candidate for the procedure, so talk to your doctor to find out more information.