Is Chemotherapy an Effective Treatment for Psoriasis?

Medically reviewed by Steve Kim, MD on January 22, 2016Written by James Roland on January 22, 2016

Chemotherapy and Psoriasis

We tend to think of chemotherapy specifically as a treatment for cancer. More than 100 unique chemotherapy drugs are available to fight various types of cancer. Depending on the particular drug, the medication may slow the cancer’s growth or act to destroy cancer cells.

Although psoriasis isn’t a type of cancer, recent findings suggest that some chemotherapy medications may be effective in treating psoriasis.

One of these drugs, methotrexate, is an effective medication in the treatment of psoriasis. There’s also a form of chemotherapy known as “photochemotherapy” that can help control psoriasis symptoms.

What Is Psoriasis?

Like cancer, psoriasis is a disease in which healthy cells are attacked. Psoriasis doesn’t begin with a tumor, though. The disease itself occurs when the body’s immune system acts abnormally and mistakenly attacks healthy skin cells.

In people without psoriasis, the body’s outer layer of skin cells die and shed away. New skin cells move up from below the surface to take the place of the old, dead skin cells. This process usually takes a couple of weeks.

If you have psoriasis, this cell turnover process takes only a few days instead of two weeks. Due to this rapid pace, new skin cells that form below the surface overtake healthy skin cells on the surface. This results in dry, scaly patches. These patches are often found on the:

  • elbows
  • knees
  • scalp
  • torso

An important goal of treatment is to slow down the growth of newly forming cells.

Methotrexate Therapy

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved methotrexate for the treatment of psoriasis in the 1970s. By this time, the drug was already a well-established cancer medication. Since then, it has remained a mainstay in psoriasis treatment because it helps decrease the production of new skin cells.

What Injections Can I Use to Treat My Psoriasis?

Methotrexate can be injected or taken orally. This medication is often used in along with other psoriasis treatments, such as topical creams and light therapy.

Photochemotherapy

Shining an ultraviolet (UV) light on an area of skin affected by psoriasis is a common treatment. This approach takes many forms. If a small area is affected, it may be helpful to use of a handheld UV light wand to treat the area. If the patches cover large sections of skin, you can stand in a phototherapy booth to receive an all-over light treatment.

IS PUVA an Effective Treatment for Psoriasis?

Photochemotherapy called PUVA uses a medication called psoralen and ultraviolet A light to target affected skin. Before undergoing this light therapy, you must take the psoralen, which is a light-sensitizing medication. The drug makes the skin more responsive to certain types of UV light therapy. This should be taken two hours before your appointment. The treatment can be localized or cover your whole body. PUVA is an aggressive form of therapy and is generally only used in serious cases.

What Are The Side Effects and Risk Factors?

Methotrexate is usually well-tolerated, but there are some precautions. It’s not recommended for people with liver or kidney problems. You should also avoid this drug if you have anemia or if you’re pregnant or nursing.

If you do take this medication, you need to have regular blood tests done to see how your body is responding to the drug. This medication can cause liver scarring. Liver problems can be made worse if you consume a lot of alcohol or if you’re obese.

The potential side effects associated with photochemotherapy are mostly seen on the skin. However, nausea and headache can sometimes follow treatments.

Because psoralen causes sensitivity to UV light, you should take extra precautions with sunlight while the drug is still in your system. You run the risk of getting sunburned, even in conditions that don’t seem threatening. Be sure to avoid the sun in the hottest part of the day and wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

Long-term potential skin problems can include:

  • dry skin
  • wrinkles
  • freckles
  • a higher risk of skin cancer

Speaking with Your Doctor

If you have psoriasis, you should discuss the range of treatment options available to you with your doctor. Psoriasis is a chronic condition without a cure. Before undergoing any long-term therapy, you should discuss any potential side effects with your doctor.

These chemotherapy drugs may be effective for some people, but they’re not for everyone. Psoriasis affects people differently. Each person’s response to a particular treatment may vary, too.

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