Psoriasis is a chronic, auto-immune disease of the skin that affects about 3 percent of the population. It involves an overactive immune system, which sends out faulty signals that accelerate the growth cycle of skin cells, resulting in thick red plaques of dry skin. Psoriasis is not contagious. It causes unpredictable flare-ups and varies a great deal from one person to the next.
Types of psoriasis
There are 5 types of psoriasis:
- Plaque psoriasis (a.k.a. psoriasis vulgaris) is the most common type (about 80 percent of cases). It is characterized by red, swollen well-defined plaques covered with white scales that detach from the surface of the skin. It generally develops on the knees, elbows, scalp and trunk.
- Guttate psoriasis often affects children and young adults, causing small, red drop-like bumps to appear on the trunk and limbs.
- Flexural (or inverse) psoriasis appears as smooth, pinkish, shiny lesions in the folds of the skin (armpits, groin, under the breasts, around the genitals and on the buttocks).
- Pustular psoriasis usually affects adults. It involves widespread or localized white, non-contagious, pus-filled blisters surrounded by redness.
- Erythrodermic psoriasis does not cause individual lesions, but rather redness on the entire body accompanied by the loss of layers of skin. People with this type of psoriasis should see a doctor.
Psoriasis is an unpredictable condition that can affect people of all ages. Symptoms can appear for three or four months, disappear for several months – even years – and then reappear.
Other skin conditions, such as eczema, can present symptoms similar to those of plaque or guttate psoriasis. Do not hesitate to consult a health professional if you have any questions about these or any other skin disorders.
The exact causes of psoriasis remain unknown at present, but experts do know that the immune system and genetic factors are involved. Normally, in someone without psoriasis, skin cells reproduce at an even pace to ensure the constant renewal of the epidermis. In the case of psoriasis, however, healthy skin produces too many new cells, which raise the skin. As a result, the superficial layers of cells do not receive any blood, die and form a white, scaly crust.
While about 10 percent of people inherit genes that predispose them to psoriasis, only 2 to 3 percent develop the disease. A combination of genetic predisposition to the disease and exposure to certain environmental triggers is believed to be at the root of psoriasis.
Many factors can cause the onset of plaques:
- Skin lesions (caused by sun exposure, vaccines and scratches to the skin)
- Streptococcus infection
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Certain medications
Since psoriasis cannot be cured, treatment options and prevention measures aim mainly at reducing the intensity of the symptoms.
Topical creams, ointments, lotions and shampoos
Products containing cortisone, tar, salicylic acid or other agents can be used to reduce symptoms. Moisturizing creams can also help ease the discomfort of psoriasis. Talk to your pharmacist to find out which product is best for you.
Natural light and artificial ultraviolet (UV) light are both used in the treatment of psoriasis. Exposure to UV rays, especially UVBs, is thought to be beneficial. Phototherapy usually takes place in the doctor’s office.
There are also prescribed oral or injectable medications. These drugs are reserved for more severe cases.
Here are a few tips for people suffering from psoriasis.
- Identify the irritants and allergens that trigger psoriasis flare-ups and try to avoid them.
- Manage the humidity level in your home.
- Keep skin well moisturized.
- Avoid scratching affected areas.
- Wear clothing that lets skin breathe.
- Avoid sunburns.
Psychological and emotional factors, such as a major stressful event, family conflicts or the loss of a loved one play an important role in psoriasis flare-ups. People with psoriasis should therefore practise relaxation activities or seek professional counselling to better understand and manage their stress.
Related health risks
People with psoriasis are at a greater risk for developing other health conditions, such as:
- Psoriatic arthritis (or psoriatic arthropathy)
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s disease
Psoriasis sufferers should maintain a healthy lifestyle that involves the proactive management of these risk factors:
Do you have questions about psoriasis and its treatment? Consult your pharmacist for expert advice!