Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Bowen's disease

3-minute read

Bowen's disease is a very early form of skin cancer that hasn't spread beyond the top layer of skin. It is also called squamous cell carcinoma in situ. It is not usually serious and there are good treatments available, but don't ignore it since there's a small chance it can spread and become a more serious form of skin cancer.

Types of Bowen’s disease

Bowen's disease develops in the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin. It can develop anywhere on the body, but it’s most common on the trunk, arms or legs. It can also appear on the lips, inside the mouth, or around the genitals or anus. 

Bowen's disease is more common in people who have had a lot of sun exposure, who are infected with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), people who have problems with their immune system, or those who have been exposed to arsenic or radiation. People with Bowen’s disease often also have other forms of skin cancer such as basal cell carcinoma. 

Bowen’s disease symptoms

Bowen’s disease usually looks like a patch of red, scaly skin that grows slowly over time. Sometimes the patch may be raised and look sore, or it can look like a wart or a dark brown patch in the genital area. The patch is often itchy. 

There aren’t usually any other symptoms. Bowen’s disease is often mistaken for psoriasis, eczema or a fungal infection.

Bowen’s disease diagnosis

If you notice a new or changing mole, freckle or spot, you should see your GP. They will examine you and, if necessary, they will refer you to a dermatologist (a skin specialist). 

Bowen’s disease can be diagnosed by investigating how the patch of skin looks and behaves, but you will often need a biopsy to confirm it. This is when a small sample of tissue is removed to be examined in a laboratory.

Bowen’s disease treatment

There are many ways to treat Bowen’s disease. Because it is such an early cancer, it can very likely be cured. 

The best type of treatment for you will depend on the size and thickness of the Bowen’s disease, where it is on your body, your age and health, and your preference. Treatments include: 

  • Freezing it off: Liquid nitrogen is sprayed onto the patch of skin to freeze it. It will scab over and fall off after a few days. The procedure can be a little uncomfortable.
  • Chemotherapy cream: A medicine such as 5-fluorouracil or imiquimod is put on the patch regularly for a few weeks. The skin often gets red and inflamed before it gets better.
  • Curettage and cautery: You are given a local anaesthetic before the patch of skin is scraped away and then heat or electricity are used to stop any bleeding.
  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT): A cream that reacts to light is spread on the patch of skin and then a laser is shone on the area a few hours later to kill the cancer cells. This may need to be repeated.
  • Surgery: The patch is cut out under local anaesthetic. You may need stitches afterwards.

Sometimes, Bowen’s disease comes back after treatment, so it’s important to go to follow-up appointments with your doctor or dermatologist. 

When to seek help

See your doctor if the patch starts to bleed, looks different or develops a lump, or if you discover any new patches on your skin. 

Living with Bowen’s disease

If you have had any type of skin cancer, it’s very important to protect yourself from future sun exposure. You should also have your skin checked by a doctor at least once a year. 

More information

Last reviewed: April 2018

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Bowens Disease

Bowens disease is a common superficial cancer of the skin. It is most commonly seen as a slow-growing, persistent red scaly patch on areas exposed to the sun

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

Bowen's disease - Better Health Channel

Bowen's disease produces persistent red scaly patches on the skin that are neither sore nor itchy.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

IEC (Intraepithelial Carcinoma) - South East Skin Clinic

IEC (Intraepithelial Carcinoma), also called Bowen's Disease, is a non invasive Squamous Cell Skin Cancer with a variety of treatment options.

Read more on Skin Check website

Rare Cancers Australia - Directory - Sqamous Cell Carcinoma

Rare Cancers Australia is a charity whose purpose is to improve the lives and health outcomes of Australians living with a rare or less common cancer.

Read more on Rare Cancers Australia website

Skin Cancer - Lab Tests Online AU

Site map of article content

Read more on Lab Tests Online website

Squamous cell carcinoma (skin cancer) information | myVMC

Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin, the second most common type of skin cancer, is associated with sun exposure and is more likely with increasing age.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Looking for skin cancer: Identifying suspicious moles information | myVMC

How to examine your body for skin cancer symptoms including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Includes skin cancer pictures.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Squamous cell carcinoma of the oesophagus information | myVMC

Squamous cell carcinoma of the oesophagus is a type of oesophageal cancer associated with Barrett's oesophagus which may spread to other organs.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) information | myVMC

Non small cell lung cancer includes squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma of the lung. They arise in bronchial tissues.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue (cancer) information | myVMC

Squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue accounts for 3% of mouth cancers, which mostly affect people who drink alcohol and smoke tobacco.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo