More than just a skin complaint, psoriasis is serious. Though it is relatively common, the causes of it are still unknown and the disease remains hard to diagnose. A third of those who suffer with it say their social lives are affected, more than half are unhappy with their treatment and nearly three quarters are at risk from further chronic conditions. With the hope that more light can be thrown on the ailment, August has been declared Psoriasis Awareness Month.
Psoriasis is a chronic, non-contagious skin condition that causes cells to build up rapidly on the surface of the flesh producing a thickening and hardening of the skin. This can result in scaly or dry, red patches that are itchy and sometimes painful. According to the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF), the condition affects the outside of the elbows, knees or scalp, though it can appear on any location. Some people report that psoriasis is itchy, burns and stings.
Figures from the NPF suggest that 3 to 4 percent of the world's population — around 125 million people — suffer with psoriasis, about 7.5 million of them in the U.S. Although it's not clear what causes the disease — scientists know it has both genetic and environmental sources — it is known to be related to the immune system. The NPF calls psoriasis "the most prevalent autoimmune disease in the U.S." making it more common than type-1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
T-cells — the white blood cells that usually fight off intruders like bacteria and viruses — for reasons not yet fully understood, attack healthy skin cells causing an overproduction of new skin and more belligerent t-cells. This means a buildup of dead skin at the surface — the stratum corneum — the layer of dead skin that we lose and replace over time. Normally, healthy skin replaces itself every 27 days or so; psoriasis reduces that process to days instead of weeks meaning patches of thick, scaly skin develop.
Psoriasis usually appears between the ages of 15 and 35 (although people developing it both older and younger is not unheard of) and can be triggered by a number of factors including infections, stress, cold weather, smoking, alcohol, cuts, bites and burns and certain treatments and medications. As yet, the disease can't be cured — but it can be treated. The aim of treatment, says MayoClinic, is to stop the skin cells from growing so quickly and thus producing the distressing symptoms. Doctors advise the use of a non-prescription cortisone cream, vitamin D and exposure of skin to limited amounts of sunlight among other treatments.
As the name implies, dermatitis is the general term for inflamed skin. Eczema causes dry, itchy patches that can crack, bleed and become inflamed. Although eczema involves some inflammation, it tends to be drier and flakier without causing thickening whereas, under a microscope, psoriasis skin looks heavier and more inflamed.
The various versions of the condition can have effects that range from mild to severe. Erythrodermic psoriasis is the most severe form and can cause widespread, burning redness over most of the body, which is itchy and painful. Whole areas of skin can be dislodged causing infection. The NPF warn that individuals who have erythrodermic psoriasis should see a doctor immediately as it can be life-threatening.
If you are having problems with your skin, see your doctor. And check out these tips for healthier skin.