Bowen's Disease: A Comprehensive Guide

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Bowen’s Disease: A Common, Pre-Cancerous Skin Condition


Bowen’s disease, also known as intraepidermal squamous cell carcinoma, is a slowly progressing, pre-cancerous skin condition that affects the outermost layer of the skin (epidermis). It typically appears as a red, scaly patch or plaque that gradually enlarges over time. Bowen’s disease is usually benign and rarely progresses to invasive squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), but early detection and treatment are crucial to prevent its progression.


Bowen’s disease is a relatively common skin condition, particularly among fair-skinned individuals and those with a history of sun exposure. It affects approximately 1 in every 10,000 people in the United States. The condition typically occurs in adults over the age of 50 and is slightly more common in men than in women.

Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause of Bowen’s disease is unknown, but several factors are believed to contribute to its development:

  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation: Excessive exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds is a primary risk factor for Bowen’s disease. UV radiation damages the DNA in skin cells, leading to abnormal growth and development.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): Some strains of HPV, particularly HPV types 16 and 18, have been associated with an increased risk of developing Bowen’s disease. HPV is a common virus that infects the skin and can cause warts and other skin lesions.
  • Immunosuppression: Individuals with weakened immune systems, such as those receiving organ transplants or undergoing chemotherapy, may be at an increased risk for developing Bowen’s disease.
  • Older age: Advanced age is a significant risk factor for Bowen’s disease. As people age, their skin becomes more susceptible to damage from UV radiation and other environmental factors.

Clinical Presentation

Bowen’s disease typically manifests as a single, localized lesion on sun-exposed areas of the body, such as the face, neck, arms, or trunk. The lesions can vary in size and shape, but they commonly appear as:

  • Red, scaly patches or plaques: The patches have a well-defined border and gradually enlarge over time. They may become slightly raised and have a rough, scaly surface.
  • Elevated, wart-like lesions: In some cases, Bowen’s disease may develop into elevated, warty lesions with a rough, cauliflower-like appearance.
  • Crusting: The lesions may form crusts or scabs due to scratching or irritation.
  • Ulceration: Occasionally, Bowen’s disease lesions can become ulcerated or develop a weeping or bleeding surface.


Bowen’s disease is typically diagnosed through a physical examination and a biopsy of the affected area. A biopsy involves removing a small sample of skin from the lesion and examining it under a microscope to determine the presence of abnormal cells. The biopsy can also help exclude other conditions, such as psoriasis or eczema.

Treatment Options

Bowen’s disease is a treatable condition, and early treatment is essential to prevent its progression to SCC. Various treatment options are available, including:

  • Cryotherapy: This involves freezing the lesion with liquid nitrogen to destroy the abnormal cells.
  • Curettage and electrodessication: The lesion is scraped off using a curette (a spoon-shaped instrument) and then cauterized with an electric needle to destroy any remaining abnormal cells.
  • Excisional surgery: The entire lesion is surgically removed with a margin of healthy tissue around it to ensure complete removal.
  • Radiation therapy: High-energy radiation is used to kill the abnormal cells.
  • Topical treatments: Certain topical medications, such as imiquimod or 5-fluorouracil, may be used to treat superficial lesions.


Bowen’s disease has a favorable prognosis with proper treatment. Most cases respond well to treatment and do not progress to SCC. However, if left untreated, Bowen’s disease can increase the risk of developing invasive SCC, which can be more aggressive and difficult to treat.


The most effective way to prevent Bowen’s disease is to minimize exposure to UV radiation. This can be achieved by:

  • Seeking shade: Limit exposure to direct sunlight during peak hours (10 am-4 pm).
  • Wearing sun-protective clothing: Cover up exposed skin by wearing long sleeves, pants, and a hat with a wide brim.
  • Using sunscreen: Apply sunscreen with a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or higher to all exposed skin and reapply every two hours.
  • Avoiding tanning beds: Tanning beds emit harmful UV radiation that can damage the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer.


Bowen’s disease is a common, pre-cancerous skin condition that is often curable with proper treatment. Early detection and treatment are crucial to prevent its progression to invasive SCC. By practicing sun-protective measures and seeking regular skin check-ups, individuals can significantly reduce their risk of developing Bowen’s disease and other skin cancers.

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