Here’s the real heartbreak of psoriasis: It can nearly triple heart attack and stroke risk, according to two large studies. And when people with psoriasis have a heart attack, they are 26 percent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease or suffer from recurrent heart attacks or strokes, compared to heart attack patients without the inflammatory skin disorder, Danish researchers reported in the September issue of Journal of Internal Medicine.
Psoriasis affects 7.5 million Americans, typically triggering red, sore, flaky and often itchy skin patches. But this often-misunderstood disorder isn’t just skin deep: It can also attack blood vessels, organs and joints. Nearly one in four Americans with psoriasis may have an undiagnosed form of inflammatory arthritis that can lead to joint destruction and disability, if untreated, reports a new study by the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF), released October 13. That’s in addition to the two million already diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. Here’s a look at psoriasis, its hidden health threats, and treatments.
What Are The Symptoms?
Because psoriasis can be mistaken for other conditions, including ringworm or eczema, it can take two or more years for people who have it to get the right diagnosis, the NPF reports. There are several forms. Along with sore, itchy and flaky skin patches, other symptoms include drop-like spots (guttate psoriasis), yellowish blisters accompanied by chills, fever and severe itching (pustular psoriasis), or a whole-body rash that burns or itches intensely (erythrodermic psoriasis).
What is Psoriatic Arthritis?
This form, which affects golfing legend Phil Mickelson, is a type of inflammatory arthritis. The NPF study also found that 44 percent of people with this condition experienced a delay of a year or more before getting a diagnosis. That’s dangerous because early detection and treatment is important to help prevent debilitating joint damage. Consult a doctor if you have any of these warning signs:
- Pain, swelling or stiffness in one or more joints.
- Joints that are red or hot to the touch.
- Frequent joint tenderness or stiffness.
- Sausage-like swelling in one or more fingers or toes.
- Foot or ankle pain.
- Changes in your fingernails, such as pitting or separation from the nail bed.
- Pain in the lower back, above the tailbone.
How Serious is Psoriasis?
This disease typically attacks in flares and can range from a mild nuisance to causing intense itchiness, embarrassment, disfigurement (America’s Top Model 2006 winner CariDee English had an attack affecting nearly 70 percent of her body), disability, joint swelling and stiffness. The disease’s impact on quality of life, wrote bestselling novelist John Updike about his own battle with psoriasis, is like chronically being “at war with my skin.”
What Health Threats do Psoriasis Sufferers Face?
Studies link the disease to increased risk for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep disorders, obesity, and other autoimmune disorders, such as Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease. People with psoriasis also have a higher threat of certain cancers, such as lymphoma and squamous cell carcinoma (a form of skin cancer).
What Causes Psoriasis?
Genes play a major role. About 40 percent of psoriasis sufferers have an affected relative. A recent study reports that certain T-cells (types of white blood cells that fight infection) may migrate to the skin in large numbers due to environmental or inherited triggers, resulting in the hallmark skin patches.
What Are The Treatments?
Although there’s no cure, several treatments can help smooth the skin, slow skin cell growth, and reduce inflammation and scaly patches:
Topical Treatments. Medicated skin creams or ointments are usually the first line of defense against mild to moderate psoriasis. These include over-the-counter products containing two active, FDA-approved ingredients: salicylic acid or coal tar. Prescription topicals include corticosteroids, vitamin D analogues, and retinoids (also used for acne).
Light Therapy (phototherapy). This involves exposing your skin to ultraviolet light in a doctor’s office or with home equipment. Brief exposure to sunlight (start with 5 to 10 minutes daily) can also be helpful, but check with your doctor first since some psoriasis drugs can make skin more sensitive to sunlight.
Oral or Injected Drugs. For more severe psoriasis, your doctor may prescribe systemic drugs, such as cyclosporine, methotrexate, and Soritane (acitretin, a synthetic form of vitamin A); biologic drugs like T-cell blockers (Amevive, Raptiva), TNF-alpha blockers (Enbrel, Humira, Remicade), or interleukin.
Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Some people find it helpful to go gluten-free, or to follow a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, fish, olive oil, plus moderate amounts of red wine. Not only does this way of eating combat inflammation, but it’s also good for your heart.
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