Grappling With the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments of Psoriasis

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Psoriasis is a persistent condition characterized by discolored patches or blotches of irregular skin. While this disease can be treated, it cannot be cured, since its causes are not yet fully understood. Medical science has, however, identified the underlying physiological mechanisms and at least some of the environmental triggers that lead to manifestations of psoriatic symptoms.

Known Contributors and Factors

We do know that psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that involves the overproduction of skin cells. The condition speeds up these cells’ lifecycles, even as much as ten times. These skin cells travel to the epidermis as they die, as is normal for these types of cells. However, their sheer abundance causes abnormal buildups on the surface of the skin, resulting in the disease’s characteristic patches of discoloration and abnormal texture. When this occurs, the body dispatches T cells to the site. T cells are blood cells that make up an active part of the immune system; they react to invasive, malignant bodies like viruses and bacteria. In psoriatic flare-ups, however, the immune system mistakes the excess cells for an invasive mass. In an area of skin affected by psoriasis, inflammation occurs as blood vessels dilate and move more T cells to attack the irregular buildup of skin cells. This attack spurs the growth of not only more skin cells but also of more T cells as well. Medical studies conducted on siblings have shown that identical twins are, as a pair, much more likely to develop psoriasis than fraternal twins are. Because individuals who share the same genes are more likely to both develop the disease, scientists suppose that genetics plays a very large role in psoriasis. It is currently believed that specific genes will predispose people toward psoriasis, but the disease only emerges in the presence of certain environmental factors. When these factors and genetic predisposition converge, the sufferer’s body attacks itself, causing the characteristic patches of irregularly colored, uncomfortable skin irregularities that most commonly indicate a psoriasis flare-up.

Common Symptoms

The vast majority of psoriasis cases consist of plaque psoriasis. This particular variety’s name comes from the dry, scaly patches of skin (plaques) that are its most visible symptom. These patches cause the sufferer great discomfort in the form of itching, burning and stinging as their immune system attempts to eradicate the overly abundant skin cells there. They often take one a dry, scaly appearance, and frequently crack and bleed. There are other types of psoriasis that can manifest elsewhere on the body, depending largely on the specific type of the disease. Inverse psoriasis, for example, manifests as smooth, discolored patches in places where skin folds against skin, such as under the arms and inside the thighs. The pustular and guttate varieties, on the other hand, are characterized by smaller, individual pustules or lesions dispersed across the skin.

Common Triggers

Unfortunately, the common triggers of psoriasis flare-ups are very common. They include everyday foods, drinks, and situations in which nearly everyone finds themselves, at some time or another. For sufferers of psoriasis, however, these things have very painful results. While the link between certain foods—such as citrus or wheat gluten—and outbreaks of psoriasis are based on sufferer’s own experiences, there is strong evidence that certain categories of beverages and foods can amplify the frequency and severity of flare-ups. One of these is fatty foods; because fat is an inflammatory tissue, some doctors and researchers follow the line of reasoning that its involvement in systemic inflammation extends to psoriatic tissue as well. Losing weight and sticking to a low-fat diet may serve to reduce incidences of psoriasis symptoms as well as their severity. Alcohol seems to also play a role in flare-ups. Because initial alcohol consumption causes blood vessels to dilate, more blood flows to areas affected by psoriasis, bringing with it more T cells, more inflammation and so on. Unfortunately, psoriasis is often (and understandably) associated with depression, which of course has its own intimate links with alcohol consumption. Having a drink or two is likewise a common response to feelings of stress. Unfortunately, with or without alcohol, stress itself is another trigger of psoriasis flare-ups. Another common de-stressor, tobacco can likewise increase not only the severity of symptoms but also the likelihood of an individual developing the disease in the first place. Climate can also play a role in flare-ups. Exposure to the sun, especially in the case of a sunburn, can lead to the recurrence or intensification of symptoms. Likewise, cold and arid conditions that dry the skin and cause it to crack can also lead to flare-ups. Other trauma to the skin—even minor wounds like paper cuts and scrapes—can also lead to an outbreak of psoriasis at the affected site. This extends to minor wounds incurred in medical procedures, such as drawing blood or injecting a vaccine through a hypodermic needle. Certain medicines are also known to induce or exacerbate symptoms. These include beta-blockers, steroidals and antimalerials, all of which can extend and intensify psoriasis outbreaks. While the precise causes of psoriasis remain unclear, factors that influence the disease are becoming increasingly clear. By being mindful of these irritants, psoriasis sufferers can successfully manage, if not eliminate, their condition.