Factsheet: Psoriasis

It's estimated that 1.2 million Britons suffer from psoriasis, yet fewer than 25% of them seek help. This factsheet assesses the symptoms, treatment and causes of what can be a distressing ailment.

Factsheet: Psoriasis

What is psoriasis?

Psoriasis occurs when skin cells mature within 2-3 days as opposed to regular skin cells which take between 21-28 days. The skin cells replicate faster than the cells shed and so pile up in visible layers. Psoriasis is not infectious and cannot be transferred from one part of the body to another.

What are the symptoms?

Psoriasis appears as raised red patches of skin which can look either scaly or shiny. Common sites for the scaly type are elbows, knees, scalp and back whereas the shiny type usually manifests where two skin surfaces meet, eg in skin folds such as the groin and beneath the breasts.

Psoriasis can vary from a small affected patch of skin to a large, serious eruption. Minor psoriatic patches usually recover spontaneously or with little treatment, however severe forms require more intensive medical care.

When a psoriatic rash is obvious it is understandable that the sufferer may feel uncomfortable in company and may experience depressive bouts or in extreme cases, may withdraw from society.

Who does it affect?

Psoriasis affects both sexes equally. It may appear for the first time at any age, although it is more likely to appear between the ages of 11 and 45.

What triggers psoriasis?

Certain genes have been identified as being linked to psoriasis. It appears, however, that a genetic tendency needs to be triggered off by such things as injury, throat infection, certain drugs and physical and emotional stress. Research is under way into all aspects of the causes of psoriasis.

Factors which aggravate psoriasis are alcohol consumption, stress, toxic bowel, impaired liver function, nutritional factors and incomplete break down of proteins.

What are the different types of psoriasis?

  • Plaque psoriasis: the most commonly seen patches are called plaques. They especially affect the back of the elbows and the front of the knees and the back.

  • Guttate psoriasis is many small patches of psoriasis, all over the body, and often happens after a throat infection.

  • Flexural psoriasis causes red, shiny areas in skin folds eg under breasts, between buttocks etc.

  • Pustular psoriasis appears as smaller, circular patches filled with pus appearing on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. This can sometimes cause a fever which may require antibiotic treatment.

  • Scalp psoriasis. Scaling and flakes of the scalp, often particularly affecting the hair margins.

  • A serious, but rare, complication of psoriasis is erythroderma, where large areas of the skin become hot, red, and dry. This is one of the few emergencies involving skin conditions. If you suffer from this your doctor will admit you to hospital.

Sometimes parts of the body other than the skin can be affected. Approximately 10% of sufferers develop psoriatic arthritis which inflames usually one joint, such as the tips of fingers or toes. Nail thickening (nail dystrophy) or eye inflammation (uveitis) can also be attributed to psoriasis. One or more of your finger or toe nails may develop little pits as on a thimble, or may become generally more opaque and thickened.

How can it be treated?

In the first instance visit your GP for a diagnosis. S/he may refer you to a dermatologist or for a course of ultra violet light therapy which achieves significant success in treating psoriasis. For more information on UV therapy visit the Psoriasis Association or the British Photodermatology Group.

An alternative treatment is the use of 'biologics', medications derived from living sources unlike regular drugs which are created using chemicals. Examples of biologics are vaccines and insulin. Recently biologics have begun to emerge as potentially promising new treatment options. Visit the Psoriasis Association for more information.

Other sufferers seek relief from practitioners of complementary medicines such as Chinese herbalists.