Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that manifests itself as a skin disorder. It affects around 1 to 3 percent of Americans. A 2010 study found that those with psoriasis are at a much greater risk of depression, thoughts of suicide, and anxiety. Even though it affects your skin, psoriasis actually begins inside your immune system. It comes from your T cells, which is a type of white blood cell. These cells are designed to protect the body from infection and disease. However, in psoriasis, they mistakenly become active and set off other immune responses that lead to its symptoms.
Symptoms of Psoriasis
Psoriasis is characterized by skin ailments that include:
- itchy, scaly patches of thickened skin
- dry, cracked patches that may bleed
- thickened, pitted, or ridged nails
- stiff and swollen joints.
Symptoms range from mild to severe.
Causes of Psoriasis
The exact cause of psoriasis is unknown. However, psoriasis most commonly affects adults and occurs more often in those who have a family history of the skin condition.
The symptoms of psoriasis can come and go, but there are common triggers that people with psoriasis should avoid.
While there is no definite science for dietary changes, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation, people with psoriasis may want to avoid whole milk, citrus fruits, gluten, and fatty foods.
The 2010 study found that people with psoriasis tend to drink more alcohol. Unfortunately, alcohol is a trigger for many people with psoriasis. Another study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital saw an increase in psoriasis in those that drank non-light beer specifically. The increase was associated with two to three drinks per week.
For people with psoriasis, too much sun can spell a major outbreak. While a moderate amount of sun can relieve symptoms in some, sunburns can almost certainly cause a flare-up. If you find a small amount of sun actually helps your symptoms, just remember to keep it to a minimum.
Cold, Dry Weather
A cold, dry climate can also worsen symptoms of psoriasis. In this kind of weather, moisture is stripped from the skin in the bitter cold. Heating units make matters worse. Try to minimize time spent in the elements during the coldest months, and invest in a good humidifier for your home.
Stress and psoriasis often go hand in hand. Unfortunately, stress is a big trigger for outbreaks of psoriasis. It’s important to attempt to reduce stress in your life as much as possible. Yoga and meditation practices have shown great success in relieving stress associated with many types of pain.
Being overweight can increase the risk of psoriasis as well as make the symptoms worse. A study in JAMA Dermatology in 2013 found a link between a low-calorie diet and decreased flare-ups.
Avoid smoking if you have psoriasis. Tobacco can increase your risk of psoriasis and also make your symptoms more severe.
Some medications interfere with your body’s autoimmune response and can cause a severe psoriasis attack. These include beta-blockers, which are used for high blood pressure, steroidal medicines, and pills taken to stop malaria. Always tell your doctor if you have psoriasis if any of these medications are being prescribed.
Some common infections like strep throat (Streptococcal pharyngitis), thrush (Candida albicans), and upper respiratory infections can trigger psoriasis outbreaks. If you suspect that you have been infected with any of these types of bacteria, get it treated promptly by your doctor.
Scratches, Bites, and Skin Injury
If you have a bug bite, cut, or scrape, or you’ve experienced any kind of skin injury, you may notice new psoriasis lesions nearby the affected area. These types of injuries can even occur in everyday activities such as shaving or tending to a garden. When performing any activity that may cause skin injury, be sure to take extra precautions like wearing long sleeves, gloves, and using bug spray.
While it's not always possible to avoid every trigger for psoriasis, a little planning can go a long way toward preventing an outbreak. Carry a hat and sunscreen with you at all times. You never know when you might be sitting at a sunny table at a restaurant. If you learn your individual triggers, you can prevent and lessen most of your outbreaks.
There is no cure for psoriasis. However, there are several effective treatments.
This is a cream or ointment that is applied right to the skin and serves several functions. It might:
- help reduce inflammation and skin cell turnover
- suppress the immune system
- help the skin peel and unclog pores
- soothe the skin
As noted above, a certain amount of sun can help symptoms, but too much can aggravate them. Another option is to use artificial ultraviolet light to treat psoriasis.
For more severe cases, doctors will prescribe oral (taken by mouth) or injected (delivered via a shot) treatment. These interventions are known as systemic treatments.
Often doctors will use a little of each type of therapy, which can work well and allow you to use a lower dose of each.
Doctors continue to study the treatment and triggers for psoriasis. Some of the areas they are pursuing for future potential treatment are:
- gene therapy
- new treatments that help skin not react to the immune system
- how other conditions, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes may contribute to psoriasis.
Although there is no existing cure for psoriasis, treatment can help. Understanding your triggers can help you avoid flare-ups and help you manage your symptoms. Talk to your doctor about treatment options that are best for you.
You asked, we answered
- When it comes to psoriasis, what symptoms and/or triggers signal an emergency?
Emergency treatment is necessary when over 80 percent of your body is covered with red, scaly, and flaking skin. This causes severe itchiness and pain, which requires hospital stay to avoid skin infections and worsening of the condition.- Mark R. Laflamme, MD