Understanding Psoriasis

Understanding Psoriasis

What is Psoriasis

Psoriasis, a chronic skin condition characterized by thick white, silvery or red patches of skin, is caused by skin cells that grow too rapidly. In normal skin, skin cells gradually grow and old skin cells flake off roughly every four weeks. In skin with psoriasis, however, new skin cells are formed too rapidly, often over a series of days rather than weeks, and much too quickly for old skin to shed normally. The result is thick, patches of skin, most commonly on the knees, elbows, hands, feet, scalp or lower back. Researchers are still not sure what causes psoriasis, but believe the condition may be caused by an immune system overreaction, which would classify psoriasis as an autoimmune disorder. While people of all ages can be affected, psoriasis most commonly affects adults.

Types of Psoriasis

Psoriasis can appear in a variety of ways, each with distinct characteristics. Most people only have one type of psoriasis at a time, but in some rare instances, more than one type of psoriasis may appear at the same time. The most common type of psoriasis is plaque psoriasis, which results in raised, red patches of skin, usually covered in a silvery-white layer of scales or dead skin cells. The patches (called plaques) most commonly appear on the knees, elbows, lower back or scalp, though they can appear anywhere on the body, and are often itchy and painful. Other types of psoriasis include guttate psoriasis, which often begins in childhood or adolescence and is the second most common type of psoriasis, and inverse psoriasis, which affects the folds of the body (such as armpits and behind the knees).

Pustular psoriasis is another form of psoriasis, and is characterized by white blisters (pustules) filled with white blood cells (pus). The most severe type of psoriasis is called erythrodermic psoriasis, which affects most of the body and causes a painful, itchy widespread rash and exfoliation (shedding) of the skin. Erythrodermic psoriasis is considered a medical emergency and should be reported to a doctor right away, as the condition can be life threatening.

Psoriasis Causes and Risk Factors

No one knows for sure what causes some people to develop psoriasis, but researchers believe the condition is caused when the immune system is triggered into overdrive. As a result, skin grows faster than normal, causing a build up of skin cells on the surface of the skin. Genetics and environmental factors are both believed to play a role in the development of psoriasis.

While the exact cause of psoriasis is unclear, there are certain factors that can increase the risk of developing the condition. Risk factors include having a family history of psoriasis, infections (such s strep throat), skin injuries, smoking and physical or emotional stress. Some people have several risk factors but never develop psoriasis, however, while others who have no risk factors develop the condition. Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about your risk of developing psoriasis.

Symptoms of Psoriasis

Psoriasis symptoms depend on the type and severity of the psoriasis, but the main symptoms include raised, red areas of skin, usually covered in silvery scales, itching, discolored or pitted nails, scaling or crusted, thick patches or plaques on the scalp. One of the key characteristics of psoriasis is a rash that appears in the same area on both sides of the body, such as both elbows or both knees. Joint swelling, pain and tenderness may also occur due to psoriatic arthritis, though not everyone with psoriasis will experience arthritis symptoms.

Symptoms of psoriasis may come and go, with most cases flaring up in response to triggers, such as stress or illness. Injuries or infections may also trigger psoriasis flare ups, with patches of psoriasis occurring after an injury such as a cut, scrape or even a sunburn. Keep in mind, however that many symptoms of psoriasis are also symptoms of other skin conditions. Only your doctor can determine whether your symptoms are caused by psoriasis or another skin condition. Talk to your doctor if you experience symptoms you think may be related to psoriasis.

Psoriasis Treatment Options

There is currently no cure for psoriasis, but there are several treatment options available to help control psoriasis symptoms and avoid flare ups. Treatment recommendations will depend on the type and severity of psoriasis, as well as your overall health, current medications and any other health conditions. Mild cases of psoriasis can often be treated with topical creams, lotions, ointments, shampoos or sprays, as well as exposure to sunlight, which has proven effective in some people with psoriasis. Home treatment may also yield good results with mild psoriasis, and includes herbal supplements, soaks, topical creams or salves, changes in diet and extra precautions to avoid triggers known to cause flare ups.

For moderate to severe psoriasis, other treatment options may be available, including prescription medications, steroid creams and light therapy (phototherapy). Biologic drugs may also be used for more severe psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis. These medications are given through injection or IV and work by targeting specific parts of the immune system to stop psoriasis, but biologic therapy is not for everyone. Your doctor is your best resource for determining the best treatment for your particular condition. If you are taking any medications or supplements, talk to your doctor about any possible drug interactions with prescription medications before beginning any type of new treatment or medication.