A Concise Guide to Psoriasis
Psoriasis is a chronic condition that causes both physical and psychological pain. The symptoms of this incurable illness come in cycles, so long periods of remission can be followed by intense flare-ups that disrupt daily life. To make matters worse, emotional stress can trigger psoriasis symptoms.
Research suggests that most cases of psoriasis stem from abnormalities in the immune system. While psoriasis likely has a genetic component, it can skip generations. If you or someone you know has been recently diagnosed, this guide will help you understand the basics of living a healthy life with psoriasis.
What is Psoriasis?
Psoriasis is a persistent disorder that causes skin cells to multiply up to 10 times faster than their normal rate. As dead skin cells accumulate on top of one another, they can create scaly red and white plaques. Psoriasis plaques usually manifest on the knees, elbows, or scalp, yet they can also appear on the palms, feet, or torso. These lesions tend to be itchy, painful, and prone to bleeding. Plaques can also merge together and cover wider areas of the body.
Doctors categorize cases of psoriasis into different types based on where symptoms manifest, but they all have similar recommendations. According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, between 10 to 30 percent of psoriasis patients also have psoriatic arthritis, a condition that causes swelling and pain in the joints.
In addition to emotional stress, injuries and certain medications can also spark psoriasis flare-ups. Some blood pressure medications, anti-malarial drugs, lithium, and ibuprofen can trigger psoriasis flares. Fortunately, there are dozens of treatments that are safe and effective for relieving psoriasis symptoms. Psoriasis can be embarrassing, frustrating, and, at times, painful, but symptoms are usually harmless. Millions of people with psoriasis control their condition with medication and live long, happy, and healthy lives.
Signs and Symptoms
Everyone gets red or dry patches on their skin from time to time, but the symptoms of psoriasis tend to be much more severe and painful. These symptoms include:
- Persistent patches of itchy, scaly skin on the elbows, upper body, knees, or scalp.
- Discolored or abnormally thick fingernails or toenails.
- Pitting in the fingernails or toenails.
- Cracked skin.
- Pustules on the palms or feet.
Some psoriasis patients also experience symptoms of psoriatic arthritis such as stiffness and pain in the joints, and restricted range of motion.
If your doctor suspects that you have psoriasis, they may refer you to a specialist such as a rheumatologist or dermatologist if your symptoms are severe, or they might just suggest some over-the-counter medications if you’re experiencing a minor flare-up. If over-the-counter medications don’t clear up your skin irritation, then prescription treatments are necessary.
Causes and Triggers
Psoriasis definitely tends to run in families. In fact, one out of three psoriasis sufferers report having a relative with the same condition. Unfortunately, doctors are still not completely certain what causes psoriasis. Experts strongly believe it stems from an overactive immune system.
Let’s examine some of the likely environmental triggers.
Stress is by far one of the most common triggers of psoriasis. When feeling tense and stressed out, there’s a much greater chance of you experiencing a flare-up. For this reason, it’s important for you to seek ways to effectively manage your anxiety. Some of the best stress relievers include exercising, meditation, and yoga.
During the winter time, psoriasis becomes an even bigger problem. The cold weather can easily dry out your skin. The best approach is to apply a good moisturizer before heading outdoors.
Some medications, such as beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers for high blood pressure, can worsen psoriasis. If a medication is causing problems, ask your doctor about switching to a new drug.
When dealing with an infection like strep throat, don’t be surprised to experience a psoriasis flare-up. A long-term antibiotic may prove to be a practical solution. Getting proper treatment with antibiotics is necessary.
Injuries to the Skin
Even a simple mosquito bite can trigger psoriasis. If you have been diagnosed with this condition, think twice about getting a tattoo. The skin abrasions caused by the needle can cause a psoriasis outbreak. You also need to treat minor burns as soon as possible.
Common Treatment Options
Although psoriasis remains incurable, it is highly treatable. Below are examples of the different types of psoriasis treatments. What works best for you will depend on your body and the severity of your condition.
Prescription grade lotions, shampoos, and ointments containing corticosteroids control inflammation. Salicylic acid removes scaly skin and tar treatments like Tera-Gel slow cell growth. Creams with vitamin D, calcipotriene, calcitriol, and retinoids are also all good for psoriasis.
Topical treatments tend to work well in patients with mild-moderate psoriasis without joint involvement.
Simply spending time in the sun can sometimes help psoriasis symptoms, but more concentrated exposure to ultraviolet light works better. You can receive phototherapy from a machine at a doctor’s office, or you can buy one for your home. Such devices use beams of UVB light to slow cell growth in problem areas.
For more severe cases of psoriasis, your doctor may suggest drugs like acitretin, apremilast, cyclosporine, or methotrexatel. While these treatments are highly effective, they also come with side effects. You’ll need to discuss the pros and cons of these treatments with a professional.
Immunomodulators like adalimumab, brodalumab, and etanercept can help control inflammation and joint pain. They typically have fewer side effects than other drugs, but they can make you more susceptible to other illnesses. These drugs are typically administered subcutaneously.
In conjunction with topical medications, some doctors might suggest wrapping your lesions in plastic to protect them. Do not attempt this strategy without the guidance of a doctor.
Aside from the aforementioned FDA-approved options, some psoriasis patients seek alternative remedies to alleviate their symptoms.
The ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture is used to treat autoimmune diseases including arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis. Research suggests that acupuncture is effective at reducing stress, which is vital to maintaining a healthy immune system. So long as you go to an experienced professional, there is very little risk involved.
A new study recently revealed that topical creams made from the aloe vera plant are more effective at treating psoriasis symptoms than placebos.
Although the reason is unknown, preliminary studies suggest that oral fish oil supplements with eicosapentaenoic acid can alleviate psoriasis flares and reduce your risk for heart disease.
Dead Sea Salts
Bath salts don’t necessarily have to be from the Dead Sea to help your skin heal by removing dead cells. Soaking in a bath salt solution will at least make you feel better for 15 minutes, and possibly even longer.
Capsaicin, which gives cayenne peppers their heat, can be found in several pain-relieving creams. Although it may cause a burning sensation at first, research has demonstrated that capsaicin reduces itching in psoriasis patients. Always wash your hands after coming in contact with capsaicin, and do not let it near your eyes or mouth.
Perhaps the most exotic alternative treatment for psoriasis is fish therapy, which involves sitting in a pool while small fish feed on your dead skin.
The above practices have undergone limited clinical testing, and while some patients swear by them, many alternative remedies come with their own risks and side effects. Talk to your doctor about any treatments you plan to pursue.
Maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle while practicing good stress management skills is the best way to control psoriasis. Fatty red meats, dairy, processed foods, refined sugar, and nightshade vegetables can all contribute to inflammation, so they should be avoided when possible. Psoriasis.org has compiled an extensive list of dietary recommendations for psoriasis patients.
Psoriasis is a lifelong condition that comes with many challenges, yet the outlook for patients is very good. The physical symptoms of psoriasis are rarely life-threatening, yet chronic pain can still have intense psychological effects that interfere with work and other life activities. Nonetheless, most patients learn to cope with psoriasis through a combination of drugs and lifestyle alterations, and some people even get to the point where they forget they have it.
Scientists are also constantly developing new treatments. For example, researchers in Switzerland are working on designer cells that can detect oncoming psoriatic flares and prevent them by triggering the production of therapeutic proteins.