Knowledge about the development of untreated actinic keratosis (AK) and risk of progression into squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is important. Therefore, we set out to synthesize primary data on the natural history of AK. We carried out a systematic literature search (Medline, Medline in Process, Embase, Cochrane) of studies on the natural course of AK, regarding (i) progression and regression rates per lesion-year, (ii) changes in total lesion counts over time, and (iii) spontaneous field regression and recurrence rates, taking into account studies on participants without immunosuppression and history of skin cancer, immunosuppressed patients and participants with a history of skin cancer and sunscreen use. Twenty-four eligible studies were identified providing data on at least one of the outcomes. Progression rates of AK to SCC ranged from 0% to 0·075% per lesion-year, with a risk of up to 0·53% per lesion in patients with prior history of nonmelanoma skin cancer. Rates of regression of single lesions ranged between 15% and 63% after 1 year. The data available on recurrence rates of single lesions 1 year after regression indicate a recurrence rate of 15-53%. Data on the relative change of total AK count over time are heterogeneous, and range from -53% to +99·1%. Spontaneous complete field regression rates range from 0% to 21%, with recurrences in 57%. In general, the available data are limited. Important methodological limitations apply. Currently, no reliable estimates concerning the frequency of AK developing into invasive carcinoma can be given, and further studies are needed.
© 2013 British Association of Dermatologists.