Understanding Psoriasis

Normal skin regenerates itself over the course of a month. Old cells are shed from the skin's surface as new cells in the deepest epidermal layer make their way to the top. If you have psoriasis, an autoimmune disease that affects the skin, this process goes awry. Skin cells move to the skin's top layer too fast and the body can't shed them quickly enough. As a result, raised, thickened, red patches of skin develop; these are called plaques. They are typically covered with silvery-white scales that can itch and burn.

Plaques can appear anywhere on the body, but they often occur on the elbows, knees, scalp, chest and lower back. In some cases, they can lead to painful cracks and fissures that are prone to infection. Less common forms of psoriasis produce symptoms ranging from pus-filled lesions, to inflamed reddened areas without scales, to an allover life-threatening rash that can cause fever, muscle weakness, a rapid pulse and anemia.

In most cases, doctors diagnose psoriasis based on physical examinations alone. According to the International Federation of Psoriasis Associations, approximately 125 million people worldwide have psoriasis. It can occur at any age, but it often appears in people who are between the ages of 15 and 35, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF).

People who have psoriasis are at an increased risk for other health problems, too. According to the NPF, 10 to 30 percent of people with psoriasis develop psoriatic arthritis. People with psoriasis, which is an inflammatory condition, are also at an increased risk for Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, and heart disease. Recently, doctors at Harvard Medical School analyzed data of more than 78,000 women and found that those who had psoriasis were more likely to have diabetes and/or high blood pressure than women who did not have the disease.

As more research is done, one thing becomes clear: While the symptoms are on the surface, psoriasis is a condition that is much more than skin-deep.

Reviewed by: Mary Ellen Luchetti, M.D., AAD

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