What Are the Symptoms and Treatments for Psoriasis?

Staff WriterLast Updated Jun 24, 2020 7:03:45 PM ET
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We all know how frustrating it can be to have an itch that just won’t stop itching. Now, imagine adding a few other unpleasant symptoms, such as painful inflammation and scaly patches, to the mix. It certainly doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience, but it’s a challenge that many people with psoriasis face every day.

The chronic autoimmune disease known as psoriasis grants those who have it brief periods of respite, but it can flare up again at any time. Like all autoimmune diseases, psoriasis doesn’t have a cure and never disappears completely, but it's possible to manage the symptoms by following doctor prescribed treatment instructions. If you’re having skin issues and think you might have psoriasis, here’s what you need to know about the symptoms and possible treatments.

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.

Natural Psoriasis Treatments

If you prefer to focus on natural, homeopathic remedies and treatments when possible, you have several options for treating psoriasis naturally. For starters, applying thick layers of moisturizer every day can help keep your skin hydrated. Some people have reported positive results using apple cider vinegar to alleviate psoriasis itching and scaling on the scalp.

A few minutes of sunlight each day can also help you manage psoriasis symptoms. That may sound strange for a skin condition, but sunlight actually helps eliminate the overactive white blood cells that are attacking your body. Tanning beds with UV light also serve as an option for light therapy.

If your skin always feels particularly itchy, you can try soaking in a tub of warm water and Epsom salts. For pain and inflammation, try a cream that contains capsaicin to find some natural pain relief. Capsaicin is the component that gives chili peppers their heat, but it also has soothing analgesic properties that can help with pain.

Resource Links:

https://www.psoriasis.org/about-psoriasis

https://www.psoriasis.org/about-psoriasis/treatments

https://www.psoriasis.org/about-psoriasis/treatments/alternative

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/psoriasis/symptoms-causes/syc-20355840

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/psoriasis/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20355845