What Exactly Is Psoriasis?
By Anne Halifax
More than 7 million people in the United States have psoriasis. Although this common skin condition is incurable, it is highly manageable, and a variety of effective treatments exist. Most people with psoriasis first have symptoms when they’re between the ages of 15 and 35. If you developed psoriasis, would you recognize the signs? It helps to learn more about this condition and the treatments available for it.
What is psoriasis?
Psoriasis is a common skin condition that currently has no cure. The hallmark symptom is red, inflamed patches of skin covered with white or silver dead skin cells. Psoriasis can flare up anywhere on the body, but the telltale rashes most often develop on the elbows, knees, and scalp. An outbreak often feels dry, itchy, or painful. The condition usually shows up on the skin, but it can affect other parts of the body too. Up to 40 percent of people with psoriasis will develop inflammation of the joints, called psoriatic arthritis. Flare-ups on the hands or feet can also cause deterioration of the fingernails or toenails.
Are there different types of psoriasis?
Psoriasis affects everybody who has it differently, and there are a number of variations in the way it shows up. People with psoriasis may experience their condition in any of the following ways:
. Plaque psoriasis is the most common, affecting between 80 and 90 percent of people with the condition. It causes red, thickened, scaly plaques to form on the skin. The plaques may bleed or feel painful. Plaque psoriasis can occur anywhere on the body.
. Guttate psoriasis appears mostly on the limbs and torso. It’s characterized by a rash of small red dots instead of the usual inflamed plaques.
. Inverse psoriasis appears in skin folds of the body, such as under the arms and in the groin area. It causes patches of skin to become smooth, red, and shiny. Sweat can irritate and worsen inverse psoriasis.
. Pustular psoriasis is characterized by red skin peppered with small blisters of white pus. Flare-ups of pustular psoriasis mostly happen on the hands and feet.
. Erythrodermic psoriasis is the most severe type of psoriasis. It causes redness and inflammation all over the body and can lead to large amounts of skin peeling off. Erythrodermic psoriasis can be dangerous, and requires immediate medical attention.
Who gets psoriasis?
Anyone can have psoriasis. Between 2 percent and 3 percent of people in the world live with it. Psoriasis is heritable, so if someone in your family has it, you have a heightened chance of developing it too. Most of the time, symptoms of psoriasis develop for the first time in people between the ages of 15 and 35, but the condition also occurs in children and, rarely, in babies. Men and women are equally likely to develop psoriasis.
What causes psoriasis?
Psoriasis is non-communicable; you can’t catch it from others. Flare-ups of the condition occur because the skin starts producing new cells too fast. The buildup of new cells causes the signature thickening and inflammation of the skin. However, it’s not known for sure what causes the skin to start overproducing cells. The immune system plays a large role in the condition’s development. Psoriasis is sometimes classified as an autoimmune disease, and people with HIV have a heightened chance of developing psoriasis. Genetics also plays a role: a child born to a parent with psoriasis has a 1 in 10 chance of developing the condition during his or her lifetime.
Flare-ups of psoriasis are often caused by stress. Emotional turbulence, such as moving or having a fight, can trigger a flare-up, as can injuries; people with psoriasis often develop a rash at the site of cuts and other trauma to the skin. Other things that can cause or worsen a breakout include infections, alcohol consumption, and smoking.
What are the treatment options for psoriasis?
Psoriasis is incurable, but it can be treated to minimize flare-ups and ease discomfort. There are several treatment options for psoriasis: topical treatments, which are applied to the skin; phototherapy; and systemic treatments, which are taken by mouth or by injections. The aim of these treatments is to slow the skin’s production of new cells and soothe inflammation.
Topical treatments are usually tried before either of the other treatment methods, especially for mild to moderate cases of psoriasis. Salicylic acid is a commonly used over-the-counter treatment that helps the skin shed dead cells, smoothing out the scales caused by psoriasis. Coal tar is also frequently used to slow down the skin’s production of new cells and calm irritation. Other, stronger topical treatments, some of which contain steroids, are available by prescription.
In cases of psoriasis that don’t respond well to topical treatments, phototherapy can be used to treat symptoms. This involves exposing the skin to ultraviolet light, which can slow down the production of new skin cells. A small amount of exposure to sunlight can also help relieve psoriasis symptoms. Because phototherapy can raise a person’s risk of developing skin cancer, it should only be carried out under a doctor’s supervision.
Systemic treatments are mostly used to treat severe psoriasis. Some systemics, such as retinoids and methotrexate, work by slowing down the skin’s production of new cells. Others, such as cyclosporine, relieve psoriasis symptoms by suppressing the immune system. These medications are not recommended for treating mild to moderate psoriasis because they carry the risk of causing a host of severe side effects.
Can psoriasis be prevented?
Psoriasis has a strong genetic component, and it’s not possible to prevent it from developing in the first place. However, it’s possible to keep flare-ups to a minimum. Stress is a big factor in most flare-ups, so your first line of defense should be staying in the best state of mind you can and finding healthy ways to deal with worries. Taking care of your skin can help keep psoriasis attacks at bay too. Take precautions to avoid cuts and scrapes as much as possible, since any damage to the skin can trigger a flare-up, and keep your skin moisturized, especially during the cold winter months. A humidifier can also help prevent your skin from drying out.
Psoriasis can be an annoying problem, but most people with this condition are able to manage it through good lifestyle choices and the right treatments. If you have psoriasis, a doctor can help you find the treatment that will work best for you.