Dry elbows can be rough, itchy, and uncomfortable. Psoriasis can cause plaques on the elbows that can also be dry, itchy, and painful. But there are key differences to look for.

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Psoriasis is a chronic condition that causes skin cells to reproduce too quickly. As skin cells build up on the skin’s surface, they form plaques, which are raised, scaly, and discolored patches of skin. Plaque psoriasis often affects the elbows and other areas of the body that are typically exposed, like your knees and scalp.

Dry skin is also very common on the elbows. It can appear as rough, irritated, and discolored skin.

Psoriasis is a chronic health condition caused by dysfunction in the body’s immune system. Topical moisturizers can treat psoriasis but not entirely alleviate it in the same way they can help dry skin on elbows.

In this article, we examine the difference and similarities between dry skin and psoriasis on elbows and look at ways to treat and help prevent these conditions.

If you have irritated elbows, it can be hard to figure out whether you’re experiencing dry skin or a symptom of a more serious condition like psoriasis. Dry elbows, especially in severe cases, can look and feel a lot like psoriasis.

There are several types of psoriasis, but the type that resembles dry skin is called plaque psoriasis. With psoriasis, skin cells reproduce too quickly. The cells build up into thick, discolored plaques that itch and may cause pain. The elbows are a common place for these plaques to develop.

Dry elbows are more common than psoriasis, which only affects about 3% of the U.S. population. But the symptoms are very similar. Dry elbows can appear:

  • red, purple, white, or silver
  • thick and rough
  • scaly
  • cracked (including deep fissures)
  • raw or bloody

Like psoriasis, dry elbows can feel very itchy or painful.

Dry skin happens when the skin loses water content. This is often due to:

  • dry air
  • winter weather
  • exposure
  • hot showers (or baths)
  • harsh soaps
  • itchy clothing

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about 80% to 90% of people with psoriasis have plaque psoriasis. When it develops, symptoms include:

  • itching
  • patches of thick, raised skin
  • dry, silvery-white scales covering some plaques
  • differently sized plaques
  • smaller plaques joining together

Psoriasis is an immune-related condition that happens when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy skin cells. This causes new skin cells to develop too soon, which leads to the buildup of too many cells too quickly. They layer on the surface of the skin and form plaques that become scaly, dry, itchy, and painful.

The elbows are a common place to experience psoriasis symptoms. Psoriasis also frequently affects the knees, scalp, and trunk.

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes psoriasis. But there may be a genetic component. Certain environmental factors may trigger psoriasis in certain people. The initial trigger could be anything from a bad sunburn to an infection like strep throat.

Psoriasis itself tends to come and go in flares. Symptoms may worsen and then clear up for a time. Environmental factors typically trigger psoriasis symptom flares.

Things that may increase your risk of developing psoriasis include:

  • infection
  • a family history of psoriasis
  • some medications, including certain drugs for heart disease, malaria, or mental health conditions
  • smoking
  • obesity

To diagnose psoriasis on the elbows, a doctor will request a complete health history and perform a physical examination.

They will usually examine your skin in certain areas prone to psoriasis symptoms, including the scalp. They will ask questions about your health, like whether you:

  • experience symptoms like itchy or burning skin
  • had a recent illness or experienced stress
  • take certain medications
  • have relatives with psoriasis
  • feel any joint tenderness

There is no cure for psoriasis on the elbows, but treatments are available. Treatment options include:

  • Topical treatments: Topical treatments include creams, ointments, and lotions that contain corticosteroids or vitamin-D-based medications, retinoids, and coal tar.
  • Methotrexate: Methotrexate is a medication that suppresses an overactive immune system.
  • Retinoids: Retinoids are related to vitamin A and may help some people with moderate to severe psoriasis.
  • Biologics: Biologics block immune molecules to help decrease inflammation.
  • Immunosuppressants: Immunosuppressants are used for severe psoriasis to help suppress the immune system.
  • PDE4 inhibitors: PDE4 inhibitors target enzymes within immune cells to suppress the quick turnover of skin cells.

Living with dry elbows and psoriasis requires consistent monitoring, addressing symptoms, and taking preventive steps to manage the condition. Here are some preventive measures to consider.

To help prevent dry elbows, consider:

  • keeping showers short in warm water
  • applying moisturizers, creams, or emollients several times per day
  • using a moisturizer that contains no alcohol
  • using a mild non-soap skin cleanser
  • avoiding antibacterial soaps
  • using a humidifier in your home
  • wearing protective clothing in the winter
  • avoiding dehydration by limiting alcohol consumption and rehydrating with water when sweating
  • avoiding itchy clothing

To help prevent psoriasis flares, consider:

  • keeping elbows well moisturized
  • bathing or showering in lukewarm water
  • using mild soap with added oils
  • after bathing or showering, applying heavy moisturizing lotions while skin is damp
  • stopping smoking if you smoke
  • consuming moderate amounts of alcohol
  • exposing skin to small amounts of sunlight, with a doctor’s guidance
  • avoiding known triggers like stress, cold weather, skin injuries, certain medications, and infections that can cause flares

Psoriasis is a condition that develops when an overactive immune system causes skin cells to multiply too quickly. The overabundance of skin cells forms patches on the elbows, called plaques, often covered with a fine scale of white flaky skin. The plaques may itch and cause pain.

Dry skin does not build up into plaques but may itch and be painful. It may also crack and bleed. It occurs because the skin loses water content too quickly, usually due to dry air, harsh soaps, or hot showers.

Psoriasis requires medical care that may include topical and other types of medical treatment. Dry skin is treatable at home unless it is severe. In this case, you should talk with a doctor.

It’s important to work with a doctor to create the right care plan for your specific situation.