August is National Psoriasis Awareness Month. Having psoriasis means your skin cells grow faster than normal. The body naturally develops new skin cells every month to replace skin that sheds or flakes off. With psoriasis, new skin cells form within days rather than weeks. This rapid growth causes dead skin cells to accumulate on the skin’s surface, resulting in thick patches of red, dry, and extremely itchy skin. Unfortunately, psoriasis is a chronic condition, but symptoms may improve over time.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of psoriasis can vary for different individuals, but typically includes one or more of the following:
- Red patches of skin covered with silvery scales
- Small scaling spots (commonly seen in children)
- Dry, cracked skin that may bleed
- Itching, burning or soreness
- Thickened, pitted or ridged nails
- Swollen and stiff joints
Psoriasis patches can range from a few spots that resemble dandruff type scaling, to major patches that cover large areas. Most types of psoriasis go through cycles, flaring for a few weeks or months, then subsiding for a time or even going into complete remission.
There are no special blood tests or tools to diagnose psoriasis. A dermatologist or other health care provider will usually examine the affected skin (by taking a biopsy) and determine if it is psoriasis. When biopsied, psoriasis skin looks thicker and inflamed when compared to skin with eczema. Your doctor also will want to learn about your family history. About one-third of people with psoriasis have a family member with the disease.
The good news is that there is a lot that can be done for mild cases of psoriasis. There are many over-the-counter products available that are effective for psoriasis. 1% hydrocortisone cream is a very safe topical steroid that can suppress mild cases. Preparations containing tar can also be beneficial. Tar can be found in many ointments and shampoos so it is especially helpful in treating psoriasis on the scalp. Sunlight has well-documented beneficial effects on psoriasis. Careful sunbathing (no sunburns) can be extremely effective in controlling the disease during seasons when sunlight is abundant and the weather is mild.