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Psoriasis: Treatment Options to Manage Your Symptoms & Skin

Medically reviewed on Oct 18, 2016 by L. Anderson, PharmD

Psoriasis Uncovered: Myths Versus Truths

Myth: Psoriasis is just "dry" skin.
Truth: Psoriasis is an immune disorder with often embarrassing effects, and can affect skin and joints, too.

Myth: Psoriasis is contagious.
Truth: You cannot "catch" psoriasis from someone else, even if you come into contact with their skin. It is not an infectious disease.

Myth: Psoriasis can be cured.
Truth: Psoriasis is a chronic condition that has no cure; however, there are many effective treatments, and ongoing research for this condition is active.

What is Psoriasis? It's More Than Skin Deep

Psoriasis is a lifelong autoimmune disease in which the cells of your skin are replaced at an unusually fast rate -- skin cells are quickly replaced every few days, instead of every 3 to 4 weeks. Due to this rapid turnover, extra skins cells cause raised plaques that can be flaky, red, and itchy. Psoriasis tends to occur in adults most frequently, and the symptoms may come and go.

There is no cure for psoriasis, but advanced medications allow roughly 80 to 90 percent of patients to have successful treatment to lessen symptoms and improve the appearance of the plaques.

What Does Psoriasis Look Like?

Psoriasis can occur on any area of the body, including hands, feet, elbows, scalp or genitals. In plaque psoriasis, the most common form of psoriasis, the skin tends to be dry, flaky, itchy, red and covered with white scales.

Psoriasis can affect small areas of the body or be very widespread. For many people, psoriasis can lead to embarrassment, self-consciousness, or stress; some people may require treatment for depression or anxiety. Family doctors, dermatologists, or rheumatologists may treat your psoriasis depending upon site and severity.

What Causes the Heartbreak of Psoriasis?

The exact causes of psoriasis are not fully known. Many researchers believe it is a combination of factors -- including a family history, a faulty immune system, and effects from the environment. In people with psoriasis, certain white blood cells that normally fight off infection instead attack healthy cells.

In psoriasis, new skins cells are formed too quickly and result in a layer of dead, scaly skin and white blood cells that remain on the top layer of skin instead of sloughing off. These patches of skin and lesions are known as psoriatic lesions or plaque psoriasis.

Who Gets Psoriasis? It's Not All in the Family.

Psoriasis is the most common autoimmune disease in the U.S.; about 3 percent of the population, or 7 to 9 million people, have psoriasis. Men and women both get psoriasis equally, and it most commonly appears in adults in two age ranges -- from age 20 to 30 or from age 50 to 60.

About 30 percent of people that develop psoriasis may also develop psoriatic arthritis, a type of rheumatoid arthritis that tends to affect the joints of the hands and feet. Some, but not all, patients will have a family history of psoriasis. Remember, psoriasis is not contagious; you cannot catch it from someone else.

Is There More Than One Type of Psoriasis?

There are many different types of psoriasis, and some may occur at the same time. Examples of different types of psoriasis include:
  • Plaque Psoriasis: Most common form that causes raised, red skins areas that may be itchy or flaky.
  • Guttate Psoriasis: May be a past history of streptococcal infection; may occur in children or younger adults. Small plaques form on the midsection of the body.
  • Pustular Psoriasis: Painful and severe form of psoriasis, with pus-filled sacs in the psoriasis plaques that can break. Fever may occur.

Additional Types of Psoriasis, Continued

Examples of other types of psoriasis include:
  • Inverse Psoriasis: This psoriasis may affect skin fold areas such as the genital area, under the breast or arms, or around the groin area. The lesions are flat, red, and often without scales.
  • Nail Psoriasis: Nails may become yellow-brown, pitted, flake away or detach from the nail bed.
  • Psoriatic Arthritis: May occur in up to 30 percent of patients with psoriasis; symptoms include swelling of the knee, ankles, hands and toe joints, pain, and nail psoriasis.

Flare Ups: Common Psoriasis Triggers

Certain events or substances may worsen your psoriasis or cause it to come out of remission. It is best to avoid any trigger you identify that may cause a flare-up of your psoriasis. Common triggers include:
  • Illnesses or infections
  • Skin injuries or burns
  • Stressful situations or anxiety
  • Cold weather, smoke or smoking
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Certain medications such as lithium, high blood pressure medications (beta blockers), drugs to prevent malaria, and iodide products

Treatments for Psoriasis: Where Do I Begin?

There are many different treatments for psoriasis, and what you use may differ depending upon severity, previous treatments, psoriasis type and what your preferences are, including costs.

Treatment can lessen the formation of the excessive cells and help to return your skin to a smoother appearance. Treatments may include topical creams or lotions, phototherapy (light therapy) with or without certain medications, or prescription drugs that may be taken by mouth or injected. Some injectable medications can be used by the patient at home, too.

The First Line of Therapy - Topical Corticosteroids

Mild to moderate psoriasis is initially treated with a low to mid-potency corticosteroid cream, lotion, spray or ointment - such as triamcinolone (Kenalog), mometasone (Elocon), or hydrocortisone (Westcort, OTC products). However, Sernivo (betamethasone topical) is a higher potency spray used in mild to moderate psoriasis.

Lower potency products, such as fluocinolone (Synalar, Derma-Smooth) can be use on the face or other sensitive areas. Lotions or foams are best for the scalp, creams are best for oozing lesions, and ointments can treat dry, raised, or scaly lesions.

Higher potency topicals are reserved for thicker, tough-to-treat areas like elbows or knees. Topical treatments work best on mild and smaller areas of psoriasis.

Topical Corticosteriods - Safety and Side Effects

Even though topical corticosteroids such as creams or ointments are applied to the surface of the skin, they can still cause side effects. Long-term use or excessive use can lead to thinning of the skin, irritation, dryness, or changes in skin color. If your doctor recommends that you occlude your psoriasis areas -- wrapping them in plastic after applying a topical corticosteroid to boost the effect -- side effects may be more common.

More serious side effects may occur with topical corticosteroids if used in high doses for prolonged periods. You may become resistant to the helpful effects of topical corticosteroids over time, too.

Combined Use of OTC Emollients and Creams

Topical emollients and creams are agents that sooth and soften the skin. Emollients are rich in fats and oils such as lanolin. They work by moisturizing the skin and protecting it from drying. Regular use of emollients may lessen the need for anti-inflammatories like corticosteroids in psoriasis.

These preparations are available over-the-counter (OTC) without a prescription - common examples include Aquaphor, Lac-Hydrin Five, Nivea, or Eucerin. Ask your pharmacist for more information on how to best use these products for psoriasis.

Vitamin D Analogues: How They Help

Vitamin D analogues are used to help control overactive skin cell production by binding to the vitamin D receptors on the skin cells. Topical vitamin D analogues such as calcipotriene (Dovonex, Sorilux) and calcitriol (Vectical) are effective at slowing the growth of the skin cells and can be used with emollients and topical corticosteroids applied to the skin. Calcipotriene with betamethasone (Taclonex, Enstilar) is a vitamin D analogue that is already combined with a corticosteroid.

The most common side effect with these agents is mild skin irritation. Some topical vitamin D analogues may take up to 6 to 8 weeks for their full effect. Oral calcitriol (Rocaltrol) can also be used for psoriasis.

Topical Retinoids: Vitamin A to the Rescue

Tazarotene (Tazorac) is a vitamin A derivative that affects epidermal cell growth in psoriasis. Tazarotene comes in a cream or gel and is used primarily for mild to moderate psoriasis.

Acitretin (Soriatane) is an oral retinoid that comes in capsule form and is used for more severe forms of psoriasis. Treatment with acitretin should be limited to less than 6 months; test for liver enzymes and blood lipids will need to be followed. Noticeable improvements may take up to 2 months; the full effect might take 3 to 6 months.

These agents may be used in combination with topical emollients. Topical retinoids should NOT be used in pregnant women or those planning pregnancy due to the risk for birth defects.

Phototherapy: Lighten Your Symptoms

Light therapy may be used if topical treatments are not effective. Natural sunlight or ultraviolet light (UVA or UVB) can be used to help clear the skin of psoriasis lesions. Light therapy may be used alone or in combination with medications. Ultraviolet light lessens the growth of plaques, redness, swelling and itching. Methoxsalen (Oxsoralen-Ultra) can be used with UV light also, called PUVA, and is effective in treating larger areas of widespread psoriasis. Laser light (UVB) is also used and can directly target psoriasis and avoid the surrounding skin.

Light therapy can increase the risk of skin burns and cancer and should not be used in people with a history of skin cancer.

Topical Coal Tar: An Old Stand-By

Coal tar is one of the oldest known treatments for psoriasis. Coal tar products are effective in treating mild to moderate psoriasis with few side effects, but can be messy with a pungent odor, and stain clothes and other fabrics.

The exact way that coal tar treats psoriasis is not known. Coal tar can be found over-the-counter in shampoos, creams and lotions and can be used in combination with corticosteroids and emollients to soften the skin. Coal tar is also combined with UVB light in a treatment known as Goeckerman treatment. Coal tar increases the skin's absorption of UVB light for an added effect.

Heads Up: Anthralin for Scalp Psoriasis

Anthralin (Dritho-Scalp, Zithranol Shampoo) is a prescription topical cream or shampoo for the scalp that slows down the growth of skin cells. Anthralin, like coal tar, can be messy, stain fabrics, and has a strong odor. Anthralin can also stain the skin or hair a temporary reddish brown color. Treatment may be applied for short periods to help lessen staining and irritation. Follow your healthcare providers instructions for use.

Like coal tar, anthralin may be used in combination with UV light to help with skin symptoms of psoriasis, including dryness, redness, flaking, scaling, and itching.

Salicylic Acid: A Keratolytic

Salicylic acid is available in both over-the-counter and prescription strengths and loosens dead skin from the psoriasis plaque to reduce scaling (keratolytic). Salicylic acid (Dermarest, Psoriasin) is available in many different OTC formulations to treat both skin and scalp psoriasis.

Salicylic acid can be used in combination with other treatments, like corticosteroid creams, anthralin, or coal tar to increase effectiveness. It may take up to several days before your symptoms improve. Common side effects of salicylic acid may include skin irritation, peeling, rash, or blanching of the skin area.

Methotrexate (MTX): A Longer-Term Option

Methotrexate (brand names: Rheumatrex, Trexall, Otrexup, Rasuvo), a folic acid antagonist, comes as a weekly oral tablet or injection that suppresses the immune system to slow down skin cell turnover. MTX can be used long-term for moderate to severe psoriasis and for psoriatic arthritis, but results with MTX may not be seen for several months. Your doctor may also prescribe folic acid in addition to MTX to help lessen stomach side effects.

MTX can be toxic to the liver; lab monitoring will be needed. MTX should NOT be used in women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy; men should also stop its use 3 months before conception.

Cyclosporine: A Short-Term Option

Cyclosporine, like methotrexate, acts to suppress the immune system to decrease skin cell turnover and growth.

Cyclosporine can increase the risk for infections, and use for greater than one year is not recommended. Some healthcare professionals will suggest that patients take a "holiday" from cyclosporine, use other treatments in the interim, and then return to cyclosporine therapy again later. This may help to lessen severe side effects like kidney damage or high blood pressure. Cyclosporine can be used in combination with emollients.

The Latest Treatments: Otezla

Otezla (apremilast) is a phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4) inhibitor approved by the FDA in 2014 for plaque psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. Exactly how Otezla works is not fully known. Lab studies show that Otezla blocks the enzyme PDE4 to lower inflammation in the body. Improvement in psoriasis may begin within the first few weeks of treatment.

Otezla is taken as a tablet by mouth, and you will gradually increase your dose of Otezla over the first 5 days to help lower stomach upset. After the initial gradual dose increase, Otezla is taken twice a day, morning and night. Those with severe kidney disease will take Otezla only once a day.

The most common side effects with Otezla in plaque psoriasis studies were diarrhea, nausea, upper respiratory tract infection, tension headache, and headache.

The Latest Treatments: Biologics Agents

Biologics or biosimilars, types of personalized medicine, are increasingly being used to treat psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis. Biologics are usually reserved for use after other trials of medication have failed or are not tolerated.

Medications may include adalimumab (Humira) and the biosimilar adalimumab-atto Amjevita, etanercept (Enbrel), infliximab (Remicade), golimumab (Simponi), secukinumab (Cosentyx), ixekizumab Taltz, and ustekinumab (Stelara). Prior to starting biologics, patients must be screened for tuberculosis (TB). Some biologics can be given at home via a pen for subcutaneous injection, while some treatments require an office visit for IV injection. Treatments can costs several thousand dollars per month, and may increase the risk for certain types of infections, including tuberculosis (TB).

Don't Let Psoriasis Settle: Fight Back

While psoriasis may be a lifelong and chronic condition, medications can make a dramatic improvement in skin lesions and one's sense of well-being. That is - no more fears to show a little skin; your embarrassment is dramatically lessened.

Join force with other patients who share your same condition and have similar concerns. Ask questions of other group members, voice concerns, and stay up the with latest psoriasis news, all in the Psoriasis Q&A Center and Support Groups. There is always power in numbers!

Finished: Psoriasis: Treatment Options to Manage Your Symptoms and Skin

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