A common skin condition, psoriasis affects around 2% of the UK population. There are several types all differentiated by their symptoms but the most common, plaque psoriasis, causes thick red patches on the skin that become covered in silvery scales.
The exact cause of the condition is still unknown, but psoriasis occurs when the immune system mistakenly starts to attack its own cells, which then stimulates new skin cells to develop too rapidly.
Psoriasis is non-contagious and cannot be ‘caught’ from another individual, though it’s common for symptoms to occur within members of the same family.
What are the symptoms?
In most cases, psoriasis causes a rash of thick red weals covered in scales and is most commonly found on the scalp, elbows, knees and lower back, though sometimes also affects the nails and areas where the skin naturally folds.
To begin with, the rash may start as a series of small red bumps, which later enlarge and change in texture, becoming scaly. Affected skin appears thick, but if scratched or rubbed, will bleed easily.
Some additional symptoms include:
• Discolouration and cracked, crumbling or loose nails on hands and feet
• Dry, crusty skin on the scalp
Low UV levels and a dry environment, for instance due to air conditioning or central heating, tend to exacerbate symptoms during the autumn and winter time. While in summer and spring, increased exposure to UV light discourages the rapid growth of cells, which can help to ease symptoms.
Symptoms may heal and then reoccur throughout the sufferer’s lifetime
Who is affected?
Psoriasis commonly starts in early adulthood or later on in life. Nobody knows what causes it and the severity of symptoms may differ hugely from individual to individual. Like many skin conditions, psoriasis appears to be triggered by various factors which may include the following:
• Injuries to the skin – including minor abrasions, scrapes or surgery
• Emotional stress
Bacterial infections and viruses can also cause symptoms to flare-up in psoriasis sufferers. Streptococcal throat infections, such as tonsillitis, are a known trigger of guttate psoriasis, a type of psoriasis that results in red, teardrop-shaped lesions to the limbs, abdomen and back.
While there is no known cure, the right treatment can ease psoriasis symptoms considerably. Some treatments are designed to slow the production of new skin cells, while others help relieve the discomfort caused by itchy and dry skin.
Your GP will select the right treatment for you according to the severity, location and regularity of your symptoms.
The most common treatments include:
• Topical steroid creams
• Emollient creams (to moisturise dry skin)
• Coal tar lotions, shampoos and bath soaks (commonly used in scalp psoriasis, it may also be combined with light therapy for severe cases)
• Topical creams formulated with vitamin D analogues − these must be prescribed by your doctor, as vitamin D absorbed via foods and supplements has no effect on psoriasis
• Retinoid creams
Treatment for moderate-to-severe cases is more complex and your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist.
Regular moisturising with emollient creams can help ease the dryness and itchiness associated with psoriasis, while also easing redness and locking in moisture.
Humidifying your environment, at home or in the workplace, can also help to ease discomfort.
Enjoy some sun
Always seek advice from your GP, however natural sunlight can help to lessen symptoms and improve lesions – with around 80% of sufferers reporting that regular exposure appears to improve the condition. However, too much exposure can have the opposite effect and increases the risk of skin cancer, so always enjoy the sun responsibly and in moderation – 5 to 10 minutes a day only, before applying SPF 30 or greater, is recommended.
The International Federation of Psoriasis Associations (IFPA) recommends adding cider vinegar to your bath water to soothe psoriasis symptoms. It can also be diluted at a ratio of 1:1 with water and used as a scalp rinse. Ensure you rinse off thoroughly to avoid further irritation and never apply to cracked or bleeding skin.
Take a sea salt bath
Dead Sea or Epsom salts are used by some sufferers to soothe and ease the discomfort of psoriasis symptoms. Add to luke warm bath water and soak for around 15 minutes. Speak to your GP before trying this treatment.
Enjoy an anti-inflammatory diet
'Healthy fats', found in oily fish, seeds and nuts, are a rich source of essential fatty acids, which are crucial for skin health. In particular, studies on omega 3 fish oils in the treatment of psoriasis have shown some positive results, but always speak to your GP about whether they’re suitable for your symptoms.
Stress is a known trigger for many skin conditions, including psoriasis. Some limited studies have shown that partaking in meditation can help ease symptoms, while yoga is recommended for psoriatic arthritis – a condition that affects the joints – as it can ease joint pain and increase your range of movement.
Because psoriasis symptoms worsen as the skin dries out, some people find it helpful to wrap the skin using specialist tape or cling film after applying moisturiser at night to help seal in moisture. However, wrapping should never be carried out with steroid creams unless recommended by your doctor.
Use aloe vera
Certain research suggests that aloe vera creams can help improve psoriasis by hydrating the skin and reducing redness and scaling, however, much more research is required, so always check with your GP before using.
Alcohol over-indulgence has been shown to exacerbate psoriasis symptoms, while smoking has also been linked to the more severe forms of the condition. Evidence also indicates that people who smoke may be more likely to develop psoriasis on the palms and soles of the feet.
For further information
The Psoriasis Association
Dick Coles House
Tel: 08456 760076
Psoriatic Arthropathy Alliance
PO Box 111
Tel: 01923 672837