It's not pretty, but psoriasis isn't contagious

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dry skin just needs lotion. That's the sentiment many people with psoriasis hear when others see the dry, scaly patches of skin, which usually erupt on their elbows, knees or lower back.

Psoriasis is a disease that causes skin to regenerate too quickly. In the most common form, plaque psoriasis, the new skin comes in too quickly and instead of shedding, the old skin cells pile up and form lesions, which appear red and scaly.

Instead of the normal two to three weeks it takes to grow new skin and shed the old layer, psoriasis causes the skin to turnover in two to three days.

"Essentially the skin is making too much of itself too quickly," said Dr. Hal Brown, a dermatologist in Cape Girardeau.

Scientists believe psoriasis is a genetic disorder. Most say the immune system somehow malfunctions and speeds up the growth cycle of skin cells. The National Institutes of Health estimate 7.5 million Americans have psoriasis.

In 2005, in an attempt to debunk myths surrounding the condition and bring light to the disease, Congress declared August Psoriasis Awareness Month.

"Most people know that psoriasis is not curable," Brown said. "They may not always know that it's not contagious."

Scientist still do not have a cure or a pinpointed cause for psoriasis. They do know, however, that it is impossible to pass it to others, a fact Sue Campbell wishes more people would realize.

Campbell's son Joe, 19, has had psoriasis since he was 4 months old. The disease usually does not show up until the teenage years or the early 20s.

"It's unusual, but it does happen," she said. At first, the doctors could not diagnose the problem. The baby's scalp, eyelashes and ears were dry and flaky.

"People think it's something that can be cleaned up," Campbell said. "As a mother it makes you feel like you aren't doing your job."

People brushed the affliction off as Cradle cap. Later in life, they asked if Joe had poison ivy or poison oak.

"In my typical day I get asked things about it," Joe said. "When they first started asking, I'd tell them what it is. Now I just ignore it."

Psoriasis can be treated a number of ways: shots, pills, steroid creams and sometimes even UV treatments.

Most of the medicines attempt to slow down the growth process by reducing the turnover of cells. Topical ointments, like Elocon, work for a lot of patients and are cheaper than injections, but often stop working after continued use.

"That's usually what will happen with me, it'll help for a while and then stop," Joe Campbell said. He has tried most of the treatments, including shots, but always has to switch after a certain period of time.

Certain areas of the body -- elbows, knees, scalp and the lower back -- are more prone to show the effects of psoriasis, but it can occur anywhere on the body, Brown said.

Exfoliation and lotions will not help because they do not attack the cause of the condition.

"Lotion might improve dryness and exfoliation might remove excessive scales," Brown said. "But you're not doing anything about the psoriasis."

It's kind of like taking of the top layer of the skin off, but "there're more layers coming every hour," he said.

Psoriasis makes the skin somewhat flaky and appear red or ashy, but it poses no risk of infection or spreading.

"For most people who have psoriasis, it would be more of an appearance thing more than an infectious thing," he said.

Joe has heard complaints from customers at his job, but said his bosses ignore the comments and he has learned to do so as well.

Ten to 30 percent of people with psoriasis develop psoriatic arthritis. The condition is similar to rheumatoid arthritis and causes pain, stiffness and swelling in and around the joints. If gone untreated, it can lead to deformed joints.

As of yet, scientist cannot specifically say what the connection is. They have not proven the two conditions are linked beyond the tendency to develop arthritis after being diagnosed with psoriasis.

charris@semissouiran.com

335-6611, extension 246

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