What Is Psoriasis?
When you have psoriasis, your overactive immune system causes new skin cells to build up before your old skin cells are ready to fall off. The scaly buildup of silvery-white cells on the skin’s surface is itchy and painful, not to mention visually unappealing. The area around the dry, scaly patch is often red and painful as well, with the scales sometimes cracking and bleeding. Stress is a common trigger for flare-ups, and then the stress of the flare-up can make the situation even worse.
Psoriasis can appear anywhere on the skin, but the face, neck, scalp, hands and feet are the most common spots for this buildup to occur. Joints like elbows and knees are particularly vulnerable to attack as well. Some people have developed psoriasis in the mouth, on their fingernails and even around their genitals.
Causes of Psoriasis
Psoriasis is primarily caused by a faulty immune system, but the reason for the malfunctioning immune system isn’t known. In a fully functioning normal immune system, white blood cells only attack the germs and contaminants they were designed to destroy. In an immune system with an autoimmune disorder, white blood cells go far beyond their original job and mistakenly attack good cells that the body needs to be healthy.
Doctors are still studying why this happens, but what they do already know is that you can’t catch psoriasis or any other autoimmune disorder from other people. You can, however, inherit it genetically from others in your family tree. If you have an immediate family member with this condition, you might be more likely to develop psoriasis, although that won’t necessarily happen. According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, only 2% to 3% of people with the gene actually develop the condition.
Symptoms of Psoriasis
The general term “psoriasis” actually includes five specific types: plaque psoriasis, guttate psoriasis, pustular psoriasis, inverse psoriasis and erythrodermic psoriasis. The exact symptoms of psoriasis vary based on the type, but about 80% of cases are plaque psoriasis with similar symptoms according to the American Academy of Dermatology. The most common symptoms of plaque psoriasis include patches of raised red skin with whitish scales — also known as plaques — dry skin, itching, burning, thick fingernails and swollen joints.
Even with this most common kind of psoriasis, not everyone experiences the same symptoms. Some people only have episodes with a few bothersome flakes, while others have psoriasis buildups all over their bodies, causing substantial pain and discomfort. Symptoms tend to flare up and die down in repeating cycles. During good periods with no flare-ups, you might not have any symptoms at all. At other times, you might have severe flare-ups for a lengthy period. This is a common trait of many autoimmune diseases.
Conventional Psoriasis Treatments
Unfortunately, psoriasis doesn’t have a simple cure, but it does have some treatment options that can help you manage the symptoms of the disease. Topical creams can soothe inflamed skin and help reduce symptoms. They come in several versions, including corticosteroid creams, retinoid creams and salicylic acid creams.
If the psoriasis is severe or doesn’t respond well to any other treatments, your doctor may prescribe an oral or an injected medication to alleviate your symptoms. These options are usually very effective, but they also come with serious potential side effects. For example, oral and injected retinoids can cause hair loss, and women who use them should not become pregnant for at least three years after use to avoid birth defects. Methotrexate is also used as a chemotherapy drug and can cause liver damage and reduced white and red blood cell counts with long-term use.