Keratoacanthoma

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Keratoacanthomas (KAs) are very rapidly growing squamo-proliferative lesions that look like well-differentiated squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) pathologically. KAs are characterised by rapid growth over a few weeks to months, followed by spontaneous resolution over 4-6 months in most cases.

KAs are benign epidermal growths and not a malignant variant of SCC.[1] 

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  • Incidence is estimated at 1 in 1,000.
  • Peak incidence occurs in those aged over 60 years. It is rare in young adults.
  • It is uncommon in darker-skinned patients.
  • Males are twice as often affected as females.
  • Epidemiological data are similar to SCC and Bowen's disease in terms of age, sex and the site of lesions.

Risk factors

  • Sunlight and chemical carcinogens have been implicated.
  • Trauma, genetic factors and immunocompromised status have also been associated.
  • Industrial workers exposed to pitch and tar have a higher incidence of both keratoacanthoma and SCC.
  • Typically, rapid growth over a few weeks to months, followed by a slow spontaneous resolution over 4-6 months (but may take up to one year).
  • Most occur on sun-exposed areas - eg, the face, neck, and dorsum of hands and forearms.
  • They are usually solitary and begin as firm, round, skin-coloured or reddish papules that rapidly progress to dome-shaped nodules with a smooth shiny surface. A central crater of ulceration may develop, or a keratin plug that may project like a horn.
  • They leave a residual scar if not excised.
  • A recent large systematic review has shown that none of the cases of KA from 113 published articles resulted in death or distant metastases. This was compared with 429 cases of SCC of the skin, with 61 cases of metastases and 24 deaths as a direct result of SCC. The authors clearly state that the biological behaviour of the KAs and SCCs is distinct and evident.[1] 
  • Generalised eruptive KA (GEKA) of Grzybowski is a sporadically occurring, extremely rare variant of KA characterised clinically by severely pruritic, generalised eruption of numerous small follicular papules, often with a central keratotic plug, and histologically by typical features of solitary KA.[2] .
KERATOCANTHOMA - NOTE CENTRAL KERATIN PLUG

Keratoacanthoma with central plug

  • Shave biopsy of KA is indistinguishable from invasive SCC. Therefore, excisional or deep incisional biopsy is required.
  • A recent study has demonstrated that there is a large regional variation in the diagnosis of KA and SCCs in Great Britain and Ireland.[3] 
  • This is because microscopic differentiation between these two entities is often problematic, and sometimes impossible.[4] 
  • As they are hard to distinguish from SCCs, patients with suspected KAs should be referred under the two-week waiting system. However, the patient can be reassured that they will not cause harm.
  • Complete excision is the treatment of choice for all skin lesions thought to be KA.
  • Medical treatment is reserved for when surgical intervention is not possible - eg, multiple lesions not amenable to surgery because of size or location.
  • Treatments that have produced some success include systemic retinoids (eg, isotretinoin), intralesional methotrexate, 5-fluorouracil, bleomycin and steroids, and topical imiquimod and 5-fluorouracil[5] .
  • Prognosis is excellent following excisional surgery.
  • Without surgery, prognosis is usually good; however, there is a major controversy over the natural behaviour of KA. KAs have been described as benign lesions, but also as variants of SCC.[4] 
  • Patient education in sun-protection techniques is important.

Further reading & references

  1. Savage JA, Maize JC Sr; Keratoacanthoma clinical behavior: a systematic review. Am J Dermatopathol. 2014 May;36(5):422-9. doi: 10.1097/DAD.0000000000000031.
  2. Nofal A, Assaf M, Nofal E, et al; Generalized eruptive keratoacanthoma: proposed diagnostic criteria and therapeutic evaluation. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2014 Apr;28(4):397-404. doi: 10.1111/jdv.12226. Epub 2013 Aug 6.
  3. Carr RA, Houghton JP; Histopathologists' approach to keratoacanthoma: a multisite survey of regional variation in Great Britain and Ireland. J Clin Pathol. 2014 Apr 24. doi: 10.1136/jclinpath-2014-202255.
  4. Lammoglia-Ordiales L, Toussaint-Caire S, Contreras-Barrera M, et al; Assessment of syndecan-1 (CD138) and Ki-67 expression for differentiating keratoacanthoma and squamous cell carcinoma. J Drugs Dermatol. 2013 Mar;12(3):e53-8.
  5. Aubut N, Alain J, Claveau J; Intralesional methotrexate treatment for keratoacanthoma tumors: a retrospective case series. J Cutan Med Surg. 2012 May-Jun;16(3):212-7.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
2977 (v23)
Last Checked:
14/05/2014
Next Review:
13/05/2019

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