Psoriasis is a noncontagious common skin condition that causes rapid skin cell reproduction resulting in red, dry patches of thickened skin. The dry flakes and skin scales are thought to result from the rapid buildup of skin cells. Psoriasis commonly affects the skin of the elbows, knees, and scalp. Some people have such mild psoriasis (small, faint dry skin patches) that they may not even suspect that they have a medical skin condition.
Others have very severe psoriasis where virtually their entire body is fully covered with thick, red, scaly skin. Psoriasis is considered a non-curable, long-term (chronic) skin condition. It has a variable course, periodically improving and worsening. Sometimes psoriasis may clear for years and stay in remission. Some people have worsening of their symptoms in the colder winter months. Many people report improvement in warmer months, climates, or with increased sunlight exposure.
What are the symptoms?
Psoriasis typically looks like red or pink areas of thickened, raised, and dry skin. It classically affects areas over the elbows, knees, and scalp. Essentially any body area may be involved. It tends to be more common in areas of trauma, repeat rubbing, use, or abrasions. Psoriasis has many different appearances. It may be small flattened bumps, large thick plaques of raised skin, red patches, and pink mildly dry skin to big flakes of dry skin that flake off.
There are several different types of psoriasis including psoriasis vulgaris (common type), guttate psoriasis (small, drop like spots), inverse psoriasis (in the folds like of the underarms, navel, and buttocks), and pustular psoriasis (liquid-filled yellowish small blisters). Additionally, a separate entity affecting primarily the palms and the soles is known as palmoplantar psoriasis.
Sometimes pulling of one of these small dry white flakes of skin causes a tiny blood spot on the skin. This is medically referred to as a special diagnostic sign in psoriasis called the Auspitz sign.
Genital lesions, especially on the head of the penis, are common. Psoriasis in moist areas like the navel or area between the buttocks (intergluteal folds) may look like flat red patches. These atypical appearances may be confused with other skin conditions like fungal infections, yeast infections, skin irritation, or bacterial Staph infections. On the nails, it can look like very small pits (pinpoint depressions or white spots on the nail) or as larger yellowish-brown separations of the nail bed called "oil spots." Nail psoriasis may be confused with and incorrectly diagnosed as a fungal nail infection.
On the scalp, it may look like severe dandruff with dry flakes and red areas of skin. It may be difficult to tell the difference between scalp psoriasis and seborrhea (dandruff). However, the treatment is often very similar for both conditions.
How is psoriasis treated?
There are many effective treatment choices for psoriasis. The best treatment is individually determined by the treating physician and depends, in part, on the type of disease, the severity, and the total body area involved. For mild disease that involves only small areas of the body (like less than 10% of the total skin surface), topical (skin applied) creams, lotions, and sprays may be very effective and safe to use. Occasionally, a small local injection of steroids directly into a tough or resistant isolated psoriasis plaque may be helpful.
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For moderate to severe disease that involves much larger areas of the body (like 20% or more of the total skin surface), topical products may not be effective or practical to apply. These cases may require systemic or total body treatments such as pills, light treatments, or injections. Stronger medications usually have greater associated possible risks. It is important to keep in mind that as with any medical condition, all medications carry possible side effects.
No medication is 100% effective for everyone, and no medication is 100% safe. The decision to use any medication requires thorough consideration and discussion with your physician. The risks and potential benefit of medications have to be considered for each type of psoriasis and the individual patient. Some patients are not bothered at all by their skin symptoms and may not want any treatment. Other patients are bothered by even small patches of psoriasis and want to keep their skin clear. Everyone is different and, therefore, treatment choices also vary depending on the patient's goals and expressed wishes.
A particularly effective approach to psoriasis has been commonly called "rotational" therapy. This is a common practice among some dermatologists who recommend changing cycles of psoriasis treatments every six to 24 months in order to minimize the possible side effects from any one type of therapy or medication. For example, if a patient has been using oral methotrexate for two years, then it may be reasonable to take them off of methotrexate and try light therapy or a biologic injectable medication for a while. By rotating to a medication that doesn't affect the liver, the potential of cumulative liver damage may be reduced.
In another example, a patient who has been using strong topical steroids over large areas of their body for prolonged periods may benefit from stopping the steroids for a while and rotating onto a different therapy like calcipotriene (Dovonex), light therapy, or an injectable biologic.