This common skin condition can impact every dimension of life.
FOR MORE THAN 8 MILLION Americans, living with psoriasis is a day-to-day reality. The common autoimmune condition features an overactive immune system that causes skin cells to grow and proliferate too rapidly. These excess cells build up on the surface of the skin in itchy, red, painful and scaly patches, called plaques, that can be disruptive and, at times, debilitating. For many patients, they can also be unsightly and embarrassing.
Psoriasis is an incurable, chronic condition, and while there are now many treatment options available to help control the symptoms, for the millions of people living with the disease, keeping symptoms under control is an ongoing struggle that requires vigilance and diligence to adhere to treatment protocols and the tenets of healthy living.
A Lifetime of Itching
Because it’s a chronic, incurable autoimmune disease, patients with psoriasis will have it for life. Many patients experience periods when it’s better and times when it’s worse, called flareups.
When now-37-year-old Abigaile Newkirk of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, was first diagnosed with severe psoriasis at just 3 years old, she says there weren’t many options to make her feel better. “Back then they didn’t really have anything that could help psoriasis. I was in the children’s hospital for over a month and they would put me in a tanning bed,” she says, to receive an early version of phototherapy that helped bring down the worst of the inflammation so that Newkirk could be discharged. Phototherapy is still commonly used to treat psoriasis, as certain UVB rays can penetrate the skin and slow the growth of cells. This is in part why some psoriasis patients tend to experience an improvement of symptoms in the summer – they’re outside in the sun more.
Once the worst of the inflammation had been controlled, “they sent me home with a sunlamp. I would lie under it for 15 minutes, 2 or 3 times a day. I did that for years,” she says, because back then there were few medications available to help soothe the itchy and painful skin inflammation that psoriasis causes. “I was probably 7 or 8 when I started finally having a steroid cream,” she recalls. Topical corticosteroid creams, sprays and ointments are still a common first-line therapy for dealing with many cases of psoriasis. These medications reduce inflammation and help soothe irritation.
Newkirk says she’s “always had a really bad case,” that can cover up to 80 percent of her skin during a flareup. “It’s on my arms and body, and on the joints – on my knees and elbows. I’m lucky that it’s not on my face,” she says. Although psoriasis has a strong genetic component, no one else in Newkirk’s family has it. “Even my twin sister doesn’t have it,” she says.
Being the only one with psoriasis in her family and her school wasn’t easy for Newkirk as she was growing up, but the symptoms got worse later on after she got pregnant with her first child. “The flareup that started in pregnancy never went away,” she says, and this isn’t an uncommon problem among women with psoriasis. The National Psoriasis Foundation reports that individual experiences of flare-ups during and after pregnancy vary widely, but it’s thought that fluctuations in hormones cause the shift in psoriasis symptoms. “Many women see an improvement in the severity of their psoriatic disease during pregnancy, some see no change in symptoms, while others report their symptoms gets worse. Many women report a flare in their psoriasis and/or psoriatic arthritis shortly after delivery.” For Newkirk, pregnancy and delivery exacerbated her symptoms significantly.
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