I've lived with psoriasis for 20 years — and I'm not alone. Around 7.5 million people in the United States (2.6 percent of the population) are affected by psoriasis, which is characterized by red, inflamed patches of skin (fun, yeah?). While I've witnessed awareness of the disease improve in recent years, many frustrating (and often ridiculous) myths and misconceptions still exist. Here's what I, as someone who lives with psoriasis, want you to know.
Psoriasis might look like a skin condition, but it's actually an autoimmune disorder that can affect the entire body. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, psoriasis develops when a person’s immune system sends faulty signals that tell skin cells to grow too quickly. This results in the formation of new skin cells in days rather than weeks. Because the body doesn't shed these excess skin cells, they pile up on the surface of the skin, leading to those raised, red, scaly patches of psoriasis.
Psoriasis is not contagious. You can’t catch it from kissing, touching, hugging, sharing food, having sex or swimming in the same pool. You could spend an entire day stroking the patches on my knees and elbows, and you still wouldn't end up with psoriasis — I promise. Scientists still haven't figured out exactly what causes psoriasis, but they believe the immune system and genes play important roles. Specifically, many genes must interact to cause psoriasis and a person must inherit the "right" mix of genes. Psoriasis then appears after they have been exposed to a trigger. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, common triggers for psoriasis are a stressful event, strep throat, certain medication (such as lithium), cold, dry weather and some sort of trauma to the skin, for example a cut, scratch or bad sunburn.
The effects of psoriasis go far beyond the cosmetic. Of course, it's horrible to have painful, itchy, red, inflamed patches of skin. It sucks to have to cover up my arms in warm weather if I've had a bad flare-up because I just don't want people staring at my skin. Unsurprisingly, this often goes hand-in-hand with anger, frustration, embarrassment and stigmatization, all of which can have a major impact on mental health, work and close relationships. According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, emotional stress is a major trigger of psoriasis symptoms. A 2010 study published in the journal Archives of Dermatology found that those living with psoriasis have a 39 percent increased risk of being diagnosed with depression than those without the disease, while the risk of an anxiety diagnosis is 31 percent higher.
Psoriasis treatments are not one-size-fits-all. It can take a long time and plenty of trial and error to find a treatment that best manages the disease. For mild to moderate psoriasis, the first treatment is usually an over-the-counter or prescription ointment, lotion or emollient. These topical treatments need to be applied every day, and it may be weeks or even months before they begin to make a difference. For this reason, skin care products might not be the best gift for someone with psoriasis. Also, some people with psoriasis find that their skin doesn't react well to certain skin care products. If in doubt, ask! Or go for something suitable for sensitive skin, without fragrance and a bunch of harsh chemicals. I adore organic, almond oil-based body lotion if you're wondering...
Psoriasis is a chronic, lifelong disease. However, it's common for people affected with psoriasis to experience periods when their flare-ups are minimal or nonexistent and other periods when their psoriasis is particularly bad. Clinical trials are vital to determining the safety and efficacy of new psoriasis treatments. We live in hope.
Certain risk factors for psoriasis are preventable. It may be possible to reduce your risk of psoriasis by maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress levels and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol intake. However, there is also a genetic component to the disease that makes it not entirely preventable. There's absolutely no evidence that bad hygiene or an unhealthy lifestyle causes psoriasis. Further research into a link between diet and psoriasis is needed; it's believed that a diet that's fat content is composed of polyunsaturated oils (e.g. olive oil and fish oil) is beneficial for psoriasis. Personally, I've found that diet does play a part in the management of my psoriasis, so I drink lots of water, pack in plenty of omega-3 foods and try to stay away from ingredients I can't pronounce.
Psoriasis is a serious autoimmune disease with lasting effects. The best way to support and understand the person with psoriasis in your life is to take the time to know the facts. Most people with psoriasis would rather answer questions about their disease rather than be faced with aversion and ignorance. You already know why I'm wearing a long-sleeve shirt in summer, but ask me anything.
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