The thick, red, scaly skin of psoriasis can be not only painful, but also embarrassing.
You may have it or know someone who does. Psoriasis affects more than 3 percent of the US population, so it makes sense to learn a little bit about this uncomfortable illness.
Most people get psoriasis on their elbows, knees, scalp, back, face, palms and feet. It can show up on other parts of the body, too, including fingernails, toenails, genitals and inside the mouth. Besides being uncomfortable, these patches of skin can make you self-conscious about the way you look.
“Psoriasis can be socially isolating for many people,” says Dr Joel Gelfand, a psoriasis researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “Often, people can become depressed.”
An autoimmune disorder
Psoriasis (pronounced soh-RYE-ah-sis) is not a disease you can catch from others. It’s caused by an overactive immune system. The immune system essentially raises false alarms, which lead to inflammation and a rapid turnover of skin cells.
Normally, skin cells take about a month to grow deep in your skin and then rise to the surface. In psoriasis, the cells rise in a matter of days, before they have a chance to mature. The new cells and existing cells all pile up on the surface of the skin. The result is redness, irritation and discomfort.
Unfortunately, psoriasis can affect more than just the skin. It causes some people to have swollen joints and arthritis. Studies have also linked psoriasis to higher risks for diabetes, obesity, abnormal cholesterol, strokes and heart attacks.
“For these reasons, it’s especially important for psoriasis patients to get their blood pressure checked, quit smoking if they smoke and maintain a healthy body weight,” Gelfand says.
Researchers are continuing to look into the causes of psoriasis. The genes you inherit affect your chances of getting the disease, but other factors are also involved, too. “We’re understanding more about psoriasis every day,” Gelfand says.
Symptoms of psoriasis can come and go. There are several forms of psoriasis — each with a distinctive appearance — and some people have more severe cases than others. Anyone with psoriasis should pay attention to stress, dry skin, infections and certain medications, as these factors could make the condition worse. Your doctor can give you some guidance.
The good news, says Gelfand, is that the past decade has brought about more treatments for psoriasis than ever before. Doctors now have many more options to help their patients manage and cope with the disorder.
Doctors often use a trial-and-error approach to find a psoriasis treatment that works. These include:
Topical treatments. Ointments or creams applied directly to the skin. These include corticosteroids, vitamin D3, retinoids, coal tar or anthralin.
Light therapy. Both natural light from the sun and artificial ultraviolet light can reduce symptoms. Light therapy should be administered by a doctor, since spending time in the sun or a tanning bed can cause skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer.
Systemic treatment. Doctors may prescribe systemic treatment — medicines taken by pill or injection.
Combination therapy. Combining different treatments can prove more effective.
Psychological support. People with moderate to severe psoriasis may benefit from counseling or a support group.