When Jackie was 15, patches of skin near her elbows turned thick and red and began to itch. Sometimes it would get a little better. Other times it got worse. But it never seemed to go away.
Jackie's doctor told her she had a condition known as psoriasis. He recommended a prescription cream and suggested Jackie get outside for 20 minutes in the early mornings before the sun got too strong.
Psoriasis (pronounced: suh-rye-uh-sus) is a disease that causes skin cells to build up on the surface of the skin. There they form itchy, red patches (called plaques) and thick scales. Psoriasis can appear anywhere on the body, but is usually found on the scalp, knees, elbows, and torso.
Psoriasis can get better then worse again. It may seem to disappear and then come back. Once someone has it, though, the tendency to get outbreaks isn't likely to go away permanently. For many people, psoriasis isn't a big deal. For others, it can be quite serious.
Right now, there's no cure for psoriasis, but there are good ways to treat it. Eating healthy foods, using moisturizers, and keeping weight in a normal range seem to help for some people. If psoriasis gets bad, though, most people need to see a doctor.
Doctors aren't sure why people get psoriasis, but they do know how the disease works. We all have a kind of white blood cell, called a T lymphocyte (or T cell), in our blood. These cells are part of the immune system. They travel through the bloodstream fighting off bacteria, viruses, and other things that make us sick. Psoriasis causes a person's T cells to mistakenly attack healthy skin as if they were trying to fight an infection or heal a wound.
When psoriasis triggers T cells to attack healthy skin, the body's immune system reacts as it would to a wound or infection — it sends more blood to the area to make skin cells and white blood cells.
Our skin cells are made deep in the skin. Normally, they take about a month to rise to the surface. Once they get there, they die and are sloughed off. With psoriasis, this process is sped up. Skin cells rise to the surface in a few days instead of a month.
The dead skin and white blood cells can't be shed quickly enough. They build up on the surface of the skin as thick red patches. As the skin cells die, they form silvery scales that eventually flake off.
You can't catch psoriasis from another person. You may inherit the genes that make you more likely to get it, though. About 40% of people with psoriasis have a family member who has the disease.
Some of the things that can increase the chances of a psoriasis outbreak are:
People with psoriasis will probably notice one or more of these things:
There are different types of psoriasis:
If you think you might have psoriasis, it's a good idea to see a doctor. He or she will look at your skin, scalp, and nails. The doctor will also ask questions — if anyone in your family has psoriasis, if you've been ill recently, or if you've started a new medication.
Occasionally, the doctor may remove a sample of skin (known as a biopsy) to examine it more closely. A biopsy can help doctors decide whether someone has psoriasis or another condition with similar symptoms.
There are lots of ways to treat psoriasis. Different treatments work for different people, so doctors often try a few to find the one that works best:
A doctor might try one therapy for a while and then switch to another. Or a doctor may combine different therapies. It's all about finding one that works for each person.
Sometimes what works for a while might stop working. This is one reason why it's important to work closely with a doctor. Trying out new treatments can get a little frustrating, but most people eventually find one that works.
Making healthy choices can help with psoriasis. Here are some things you can do:
People who have psoriasis may feel self-conscious about how it looks. That's one reason why some people turn to a trained therapist or join a support group of people who understand what they might be going through.
The key to psoriasis treatment is keeping up on whatever your doctor prescribes. If that means applying an ointment twice a day, then find a way to remind yourself to do it (like setting an alarm on your phone) so you don't forget. Psoriasis is one of those things that you need to stay focused on treating, even when you're feeling OK.
Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: December 2011
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