Psoriasis is a misunderstood disease, often kept under wraps by sufferers who want to hide their skin lesions. Psoriasis Awareness Month is a good time to learn the facts about psoriasis and to understand current treatment options.
Myth: Psoriasis is rare.
Fact: Psoriasis affects 2 to 5 percent of the population, which means as many as 16 million Americans live with this condition. Many of them have not sought treatment from a physician because their symptoms are mild.
Myth: Psoriasis is a skin disease.
Fact: Psoriasis is a multi-system inflammatory disease of the immune system, which can affect the joints. Yes, people who have psoriasis may have skin lesions or rashes that can be as small as a coin or that can involve most of their skin. Psoriasis patients also are at higher risk for developing “co-morbidities,” such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, psoriatic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and obesity. In addition to getting treatment for their skin, it’s important for psoriasis patients to consult regularly with their primary care physician about other risk factors.
Myth: Psoriasis is contagious.
Fact: Psoriasis is not an infection. It does not involve a virus or bacteria. You cannot contract psoriasis by touching someone who has it, and you can’t give it to someone else. Psoriasis does tend to run in families, but not because they catch it from each other. Certain inherited genes can lead to psoriasis when a person who carries them is exposed to external triggers, such as infection or skin injury.
Myth: No one can help.
Fact: Many patients who sought treatment years ago became frustrated with the limited treatment options available then. They don’t realize that new treatments are available.
Myth: Topical creams are the only treatment for psoriasis.
Fact: Today, dermatologists can consider many treatments, including ultraviolet light, systemic treatments and — yes — topical creams. Thanks to recent treatment advances and new classes of medications, dermatologists can tailor treatment to the amount of skin affected, as well as patient preference for drug delivery and comfort level with systemic side effects.
Among the treatment options you and your physician might consider — either as individual treatments or in combination — are:
▪ Topical treatments applied to the skin, for mild to moderate psoriasis. These include corticosteroids, vitamin D, anthralin, coal tar and salicylic acid.
▪ Phototherapy, which involves exposing the skin to ultraviolet light on a regular basis under medical supervision. Tanning beds are not phototherapy.
▪ Traditional systemic treatments, taken by mouth, injection or infusion. These include acitretin, cyclosporine and methotrexate.
▪ Biologic agents, which are protein-based drugs that target specific parts of the immune system. These include traditional and recently developed versions of TNF-alpha blockers, as well as new classes of drugs, such as IL-17 inhibitors.
Early research shows that some new drugs might decrease the risk of co-morbidities associated with psoriasis. Although more research is needed, preliminary studies are encouraging.
Take charge of your health
Fact: If you have psoriasis, you can take steps toward lessening your symptoms and safeguarding your overall health:
▪ Seek treatment for your psoriasis. Discuss treatment options with your dermatologist to decide together what is best for you. If you need help finding a dermatologist, the websites of both the American Academy of Dermatology and the National Psoriasis Foundation offer directories of physicians who are experienced in treating psoriasis.
▪ See your primary care physician for regular checkups that include screening for other conditions that are more likely to develop if you have psoriasis. Early diagnosis can help limit the progression of serious illness.
▪ Relax. Stress can cause your psoriasis symptoms to flare up, so find healthy ways to relieve your stress, from walking to yoga to relaxing with a good book.
▪ Follow a healthy lifestyle. Eat a nutritious, balanced diet, stay active, limit alcohol and don’t smoke.
Sara Ferguson is a dermatologist with Penn State Medical Group in State College.