Psoriasis and Keratosis Pilaris: Symptoms, Treatment, and More

Medically reviewed by Steven Kim, MD on January 11, 2016Written by Susan York Morris on January 11, 2016

Keratosis pilaris is a minor condition that causes small bumps, much like goose bumps, on the skin. On the other hand, psoriasis can be a serious medical condition that often affects more than the surface of the skin. It’s associated with psoriatic arthritis and is linked to other conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and Crohn’s disease.

Keratin is a protein that’s important to the structure of your:

  • skin
  • hair
  • mouth
  • nails

It also has a role in these and many other skin diseases. Both conditions appear in patches on the skin. They also tend to run in families, but the similarities end there.

What is psoriasis?

Psoriasis is one of several autoimmune disorders in which your immune system mistakenly attacks harmless substances within the body. In response, your body speeds up skin cell production.

In people with psoriasis, skin cells reach the surface of the skin in four to seven days. This process takes about a month in people who don’t have psoriasis. These immature skin cells, called keratinocytes, build up on the skin’s surface. From there, these cells form raised patches covered by layers of silver scales.

Although there are several different types of psoriasis, plaque psoriasis is the most common. About 80 to 90 percent of people with the condition have plaque psoriasis.

How is psoriasis treated?

The type of psoriasis and severity of the disease determine which approach to take for treatment. Initial treatments include topical medications, such as:

  • corticosteroid creams and ointments
  • salicylic acid
  • vitamin D derivatives, such as Calcipotriene
  • retinoids

Ultraviolet light therapies and photochemotherapy are also used to treat more severe cases of psoriasis.

Research is still being done to find the cause of the condition. Studies have suggested that there’s a genetic component. It’s estimated that a child has a 10 percent chance of getting psoriasis if one parent has it. If both parents have psoriasis, the chance increases to 50 percent.

What is keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris is caused by the buildup of keratin in hair follicles. Hair follicles are small sacs under the skin from which your hair grows. When keratin plugs the sacs, the skin develops bumps that look like tiny whiteheads or goose bumps.

Generally, the bumps are the same color as your skin. These bumps may appear red on fair skin or dark brown on dark skin. Keratosis pilaris often develops in patches that have a rough, sandpapery feel. These patches appear most commonly on the cheeks, upper arms, buttocks, or thighs.

How is keratosis pilaris treated?

The condition tends to become worse in the winter, when your skin is more likely to be dry. Although anyone can get keratosis pilaris, it’s more commonly seen in young children. Doctors don’t know what causes the condition, though it tends to run in families.

Keratosis pilaris isn’t harmful, but it’s difficult to treat. Applying moisturizing cream containing urea or lactic acid several times a day may be beneficial. You may be prescribed a medication to exfoliate your skin. These medications usually contain ingredients such as:

  • salicylic acid
  • retinol
  • alpha hydroxy acid
  • lactic acid

In some instances, your doctor may recommend using a corticosteroid cream or laser treatment.

A comparison of psoriasis and keratosis pilaris symptoms

Symptoms of psoriasisSymptoms of keratosis pilaris
There are thick, raised patches with whitish silver flakes. There are patches of small bumps that feel like sandpaper to the touch.
The patches often become red and inflamed.The skin or bumps may become pink or red. In dark skin, the bumps may be brown or black.
The skin on the patches is flaky and sheds easily.Very little shedding of skin occurs beyond the typical flaking associated with dry skin.
Patches are more commonly found on the elbows, knees, scalp, lower back, palms of the hand, and feet. In more severe cases, patches may join and cover a greater portion of the body.Keratosis pilaris typically appears on the upper arms, cheeks, buttocks, or thighs.
Patches itch and can become painful.Some people experience minor itching.

When to see your doctor

Neither plaque psoriasis nor keratosis pilaris require immediate medical attention. You may not need to be treated for keratosis pilaris, unless you find it uncomfortable or you’re unhappy with your skin’s appearance.

Psoriasis, particularly more severe cases, does warrant a visit to the doctor to control the symptoms. Your doctor will work with you to determine if you need treatment and decide which is the best treatment for you.

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