Definition of Psoriasis
Psoriasis is an immune-mediated disease that affects the skin. It is typically a lifelong condition. There is currently no cure, but various treatments can help to control the symptoms.
Psoriasis occurs when the immune system mistakes a normal skin cell for a pathogen, and sends out faulty signals that cause overproduction of new skin cells. Psoriasis is not contagious. However, psoriasis has been linked to an increased risk of stroke, and treating high blood lipid levels may lead to improvement. There are five types of psoriasis: plaque, guttate, inverse, pustular, and erythrodermic. The most common form, plaque psoriasis, is commonly seen as red and white hues of scaly patches appearing on the top first layer of the epidermis (skin). Some patients, though, have no dermatological signs or symptoms.
In plaque psoriasis, skin rapidly accumulates at these sites, which gives it a silvery-white appearance. Plaques frequently occur on the skin of the elbows and knees, but can affect any area, including the scalp, palms of hands and soles of feet, and genitals. In contrast to eczema, psoriasis is more likely to be found on the outer side of the joint.
The disorder is a chronic recurring condition that varies in severity from minor localized patches to complete body coverage. Fingernails and toenails are frequently affected (psoriatic nail dystrophy) and can be seen as an isolated sign. Psoriasis can also cause inflammation of the joints, which is known as psoriatic arthritis. Between 10% and 30% of all people with psoriasis also have psoriatic arthritis.
Psoriasis may be classified into nonpustular and pustular types as follows.
- Psoriasis vulgaris (chronic stationary psoriasis, plaque-like psoriasis, L40.0) is the most common form of psoriasis. Plaque psoriasis typically appears as raised areas of inflamed skin covered with silvery white scaly skin. These areas are called plaques.
- Psoriatic erythroderma (erythrodermic psoriasis, L40.85) involves the widespread inflammation and exfoliation of the skin over most of the body surface. It may be accompanied by severe itching, swelling and pain. It is often the result of an exacerbation of unstable plaque psoriasis, particularly following the abrupt withdrawal of systemic treatment. This form of psoriasis can be fatal, as the extreme inflammation and exfoliation disrupt the body’s ability to regulate temperature and for the skin to perform barrier functions.
Pustular psoriasis (L40.1–3, L40.82) appears as raised bumps that are filled with noninfectious pus (pustules). The skin under and surrounding the pustules is red and tender. Pustular psoriasis can be localised, commonly to the hands and feet (palmoplantar pustulosis), or generalised with widespread patches occurring randomly on any part of the body. Types include:
- Generalized pustular psoriasis (pustular psoriasis of von Zumbusch)
- Pustulosis palmaris et plantaris (persistent palmoplantar pustulosis, pustular psoriasis of the Barber type, pustular psoriasis of the extremities)
- Annular pustular psoriasis
- Acrodermatitis continua
- Impetigo herpetiformis
Additional types of psoriasis include:
- Drug-induced psoriasis
- Inverse psoriasis (flexural psoriasis, inverse psoriasis, L40.83–4) appears as smooth inflamed patches of skin. It occurs in skin folds, particularly around the genitals (between the thigh and groin), the armpits, under an overweight abdomen (panniculus), and under the breasts (inframammary fold). It is aggravated by friction and sweat, and is vulnerable to fungal infections.
- Napkin psoriasis
- Seborrheic-like psoriasis
Guttate psoriasis (L40.4) is characterized by numerous small, scaly, red or pink, teardrop-shaped lesions. These numerous spots of psoriasis appear over large areas of the body, primarily the trunk, but also the limbs and scalp. Guttate psoriasis is often preceded by a streptococcal infection, typically streptococcal pharyngitis. The reverse is not true.
Nail psoriasis (L40.86) produces a variety of changes in the appearance of finger and toe nails. These changes include discolouring under the nail plate, pitting of the nails, lines going across the nails, thickening of the skin under the nail, and the loosening (onycholysis) and crumbling of the nail.
Psoriatic arthritis (L40.5) involves joint and connective tissue inflammation. Psoriatic arthritis can affect any joint, but is most common in the joints of the fingers and toes. This can result in a sausage-shaped swelling of the fingers and toes known as dactylitis. Psoriatic arthritis can also affect the hips, knees and spine (spondylitis). About 10–15% of people who have psoriasis also have psoriatic arthritis.
The migratory stomatitis in the oral cavity mucosa and the geographic tongue that confined to the dorsal and lateral aspects of the tongue mucosa, are believed to be oral manifestations of psoriasis, as being histologically identical to cutaneous psoriasis lesions and more prevalent among psoriasis patients, although these conditions are quite common in the non-psoriatic population, affecting 1% to 2.5% of the general population.
Cause of Psoriasis
The cause of psoriasis is not fully understood. There are two main hypotheses about the process that occurs in the development of the disease. The first considers psoriasis as primarily a disorder of excessive growth and reproduction of skin cells. The problem is simply seen as a fault of the epidermis and its keratinocytes. The second hypothesis sees the disease as being an immune-mediated disorder in which the excessive reproduction of skin cells is secondary to factors produced by the immune system. T cells (which normally help protect the body against infection) become active, migrate to the dermis and trigger the release of cytokines (tumor necrosis factor-alpha TNFα, in particular) which cause inflammation and the rapid production of skin cells. It is not known what initiates the activation of the T cells.
The immune-mediated model of psoriasis has been supported by the observation that immunosuppressant medications can clear psoriasis plaques. However, the role of the immune system is not fully understood, and it has recently been reported that an animal model of psoriasis can be triggered in mice lacking T cells. Animal models, however, reveal only a few aspects resembling human psoriasis.
Compromised skin barrier function has a role in psoriasis susceptibility.
Psoriasis is a fairly idiosyncratic disease. The majority of people’s experience of psoriasis is one in which it may worsen or improve for no apparent reason. Studies of the factors associated with psoriasis tend to be based on small (usually hospital based) samples of individuals. These studies tend to suffer from representative issues, and an inability to tease out causal associations in the face of other (possibly unknown) intervening factors. Conflicting findings are often reported. Nevertheless, the first outbreak is sometimes reported following stress (physical and mental), skin injury, and streptococcal infection. Conditions that have been reported as accompanying a worsening of the disease include infections, stress, and changes in season and climate. Certain medicines, including lithium salt, beta blockers and the antimalarial drug chloroquine have been reported to trigger or aggravate the disease. Excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and obesity may exacerbate psoriasis or make the management of the condition difficult or perhaps these comorbidities are effects rather than causes. Hairspray, some face creams and hand lotions, can also cause an outbreak of psoriasis.
Individuals suffering from the advanced effects of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, often exhibit psoriasis. This presents a paradox to researchers, as traditional therapies that reduce T-cell counts generally cause psoriasis to improve. Yet, as CD4-T-cell counts decrease with the progression of HIV, psoriasis worsens. In addition, HIV is typically characterized by a strong Th2 cytokine profile, whereas psoriasis vulgaris is characterized by a strong Th1 secretion pattern. It is hypothesized that the diminished CD4-T-Cell presence causes an overactivation of CD8-T-cells, which are responsible for the exacerbation of psoriasis in HIV positive patients. It is important to remember that most individuals with psoriasis are otherwise healthy, and the presence of HIV accounts for less than 1% of cases. The prevalence of psoriasis in the HIV positive population ranges from 1 to 6 percent, which is about three times higher than the normal population. Psoriasis in AIDS sufferers is often severe, and untreatable with conventional therapy.
Psoriasis occurs more likely in dry skin than oily or well-moisturized skin, and specifically after an external skin injury such as a scratch or cut . This is believed to be caused by an infection, in which the infecting organism thrives under dry skin conditions with minimal skin oil, which otherwise protects skin from infections. The case for psoriasis is opposite to the case of athlete’s foot, which occurs because of a fungus infection under wet conditions as opposed to dry in psoriasis. This infection induces inflammation, which causes the symptoms commonly associated with psoriasis, such as itching and rapid skin turnover, and leads to drier skin, as the infecting organism absorbs the moisture that would otherwise go to the skin. To prevent dry skin and reduce psoriasis symptoms, it is advised to not use shower scrubs, as they not only damage skin by leaving tiny scratches, but they also scrape off the naturally occurring skin oil. Additionally, moisturizers can be applied to moisturize the skin, and lotions used to promote skin oil gland functions.
Psoriasis has a large hereditary component, and many genes are associated with it, but it is not clear how those genes work together. Most of them involve the immune system, particularly the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) and T cells. The main value of genetic studies is they identify molecular mechanisms and pathways for further study and potential drug targets.
Classic genomewide linkage analysis has identified nine locations (loci) on different chromosomes associated with psoriasis. They are called psoriasis susceptibility 1 through 9 (PSORS1 through PSORS9). Within those loci are genes. Many of those genes are on pathways that lead to inflammation. Certain variations (mutations) of those genes are commonly found in psoriasis.
The major determinant is PSORS1, which probably accounts for 35–50% of its heritability. It controls genes that affect the immune system or encode proteins that are found in the skin in greater amounts in psoriasis. PSORS1 is located on chromosome 6 in the MHC, which controls important immune functions. Three genes in the PSORS1 locus have a strong association with psoriasis vulgaris: HLA-C variant HLA-Cw6, which encodes a MHC class I protein; CCHCR1, variant WWC, which encodes a coiled protein that is overexpressed in psoriatic epidermis; and CDSM, variant allele 5, which encodes corneodesmosin, which is expressed in the granular and cornified layers of the epidermis and upregulated in psoriasis.
Genome-wide association scans have identified other genes which are altered to characteristic variants in psoriasis. Some of these genes express inflammatory signal proteins, which affect cells in the immune system that are also involved in psoriasis. Some of these genes are also involved in other autoimmune diseases.
Two major genes under investigation are IL12B on chromosome 5q, which expresses interleukin-12B; and IL23R on chromosome 1p, which expresses the interleukin-23 receptor, and is involved in T cell differentiation. T cells are involved in the inflammatory process that leads to psoriasis.
These genes are on the pathway that ends up upregulating tumor necrosis factor-α and nuclear factor κB, two genes that are involved in inflammation.
Recently the first gene directly linked to psoriasis has been identified. Studies have suggested that a rare mutation in the gene encoding for the CARD14 protein plus an environmental trigger was enough to cause plaque psoriasis (the most common form of psoriasis).
In psoriasis, immune cells move from the dermis to the epidermis, where they stimulate skin cells (keratinocytes) to proliferate. Psoriasis does not seem to be a true autoimmune disease. In an autoimmune disease, the immune system confuses an outside antigen with a normal body component, and attacks them both. But in psoriasis, the inflammation does not seem to be caused by outside antigens (although DNA does have an immunostimulatory effect). Researchers have identified many of the immune cells involved in psoriasis, and the chemical signals they send to each other to coordinate inflammation. At the end of this process, immune cells, such as dendritic cells and T cells, move from the dermis to the epidermis, secreting chemical signals, such as tumor necrosis factor-α, interleukin-1β, and interleukin-6, which cause inflammation, and interleukin-22, which causes keratinocytes to proliferate.
The immune system consists of an innate immune system, and an adaptive immune system.
In the innate system, immune cells have receptors that have evolved to target specific proteins and other antigens which are commonly found on pathogens. In the adaptive immune system, immune cells respond to proteins and other antigens that they may never have seen before, which are presented to them by other cells. The innate system often passes antigens on to the adaptive system. When the immune system makes a mistake, and identifies a healthy part of the body as a foreign antigen, the immune system attacks that protein, as it does in autoimmunity.
In psoriasis, DNA is an inflammatory stimulus. DNA stimulates the receptors on plasmacytoid dendritic cells, which produce interferon-α, an immune stimulatory signal (cytokine). In psoriasis, keratinocytes produce antimicrobial peptides. In response to dendritic cells and T cells, they also produce cytokines, such as interleukin-1, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor-α, which signals more inflammatory cells to arrive and produces further inflammation.
Dendritic cells bridge the innate and adaptive immune system. They are increased in psoriatic lesions and induce the proliferation of T cells and type 1 helper T cells. Certain dendritic cells can produce tumor necrosis factor-α, which calls more immune cells and stimulates more inflammation. Targeted immunotherapy, and psoralen and ultraviolet A (PUVA) therapy, reduces the number of dendritic cells.
T cells move from the dermis into the epidermis. They are attracted to the epidermis by alpha-1 beta-1 integrin, a signalling molecule on the collagen in the epidermis. Psoriatic T cells secrete interferon-γ and interleukin-17. Interleukin-17 is also associated with interleukin-22. Interleukin-22 induces keratocytes to proliferate.
One hypothesis is that psoriasis involves a defect in regulatory T cells, and in the regulatory cytokine interleukin-10.
Signs and Symptoms of Psoriasis
Psoriasis signs and symptoms can vary from person to person but may include 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
It typically affects the outside of the elbows, knees or scalp, though it can appear on any location. Some people report that psoriasis is itchy, burns and stings.
Psoriasis patches can range from a few spots of dandruff-like scaling to major eruptions that cover large areas. Mild cases of psoriasis may be a nuisance; more-severe cases can be painful, disfiguring and disabling.
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. In most cases, however, the disease eventually returns.
Risk Factors for Psoriasis
These factors can increase your risk of developing the disease:
- Genetics. Perhaps the most significant risk factor for psoriasis is having a family history of the disease. About 40 percent of people with psoriasis have a family member with the disease, although this may be an underestimate.
- Stress. Because stress can impact your immune system, high stress levels may increase your risk of psoriasis.
- Smoking. Smoking tobacco not only increases your risk of psoriasis but also may increase the severity of the disease. Smoking may also play a role in the initial development of the disease.
- Obesity. Excess weight increases your risk of inverse psoriasis. In addition, plaques associated with all types of psoriasis often develop in skin creases and folds.
- Viral and bacterial infections. People with HIV are more likely to develop psoriasis than people with healthy immune systems are. Children and young adults with recurring infections, particularly strep throat, also may be at increased risk.
Diagnosis of Psoriasis
A diagnosis of psoriasis is usually based on the appearance of the skin; there are no special blood tests or diagnostic procedures. Sometimes, a skin biopsy, or scraping, may be needed to rule out other disorders and to confirm the diagnosis. Skin from a biopsy will show clubbed rete pegs if positive for psoriasis. Another sign of psoriasis is that when the plaques are scraped, one can see pinpoint bleeding from the skin below (Auspitz’s sign).
Also these conditions that may look like psoriasis include:
- Seborrheic dermatitis. This type of dermatitis is characterized by greasy, scaly, itchy, red skin. It’s often found on oily areas of the body, such as the face, upper chest and back. Seborrheic dermatitis can also appear on the scalp as stubborn, itchy dandruff.
- Lichen planus. This is an inflammatory, itchy skin condition that appears as rows of itchy, flat-topped bumps (lesions) on the arms and legs.
- Ringworm of the body (tinea corporis). Ringworm is caused by a fungal infection on the top layer of your skin. The infection often causes a red, scaly ring or circle of rash.
- Pityriasis rosea. This common skin condition usually begins as one large spot (herald patch) on your chest, abdomen or back, which then spreads. The rash of pityriasis rosea often extends from the middle of the body, and its shape resembles drooping pine-tree branches. This condition usually clears within six to eight weeks.
Prevention from Psoriasis
Psoriasis cannot be prevented. But the following tips may improve symptoms or help reduce the number of psoriasis flare-ups.
- Limit alcohol to no more than 2 drinks a day for men or 1 drink a day for women. Alcohol use can cause symptoms to flare up.
- Keep your skin moist.
- Avoid cold, dry climates. Cold weather may make symptoms worse. Hot, humid weather and sunlight may improve symptoms. (But hot, humid weather may make certain types of psoriasis worse.)
- Avoid infection. Infections such as strep throat can cause one type of psoriasis (called guttate psoriasis) to appear suddenly, especially in children.
- Avoid scratching and picking skin, and avoid skin injuries (cuts or scrapes). An injury to the skin can cause psoriasis patches to form anywhere on the body, including the site of the injury. This includes injuries to your nails or nearby skin while trimming your nails.
- Avoid stress and anxiety. Stress may cause psoriasis to appear suddenly (flare) or can make symptoms worse, although this has not been proved in studies.
- Try to avoid certain medicines. Some, including beta-blockers and lithium, have been found to make psoriasis symptoms worse. When your doctor prescribes any medicines for you, tell him or her that you have psoriasis.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking may make you more likely to get psoriasis and may make it more severe. Smoking may also make your symptoms last longer.
Treatment of Psoriasis
There are a number of different treatment options for psoriasis. Typically topical agents are used for mild disease, phototherapy for moderate disease, and systemic agents for severe disease.
Bath solutions (epsom salt) and moisturizers, mineral oil, and petroleum jelly may help soothe affected skin and reduce the dryness which accompanies the build-up of skin on psoriatic plaques. Medicated creams and ointments applied directly to psoriatic plaques can help reduce inflammation, remove built-up scale, reduce skin turn over, and clear affected skin of plaques. Ointment and creams containing coal tar, dithranol (anthralin), corticosteroids like desoximetasone (Topicort), fluocinonide, vitamin D3 analogues (for example, calcipotriol), and retinoids are routinely used. The use of the Finger tip unit may be helpful in guiding how much topical treatment to use. The mechanism of action of each is probably different, but they all help to normalise skin cell production and reduce inflammation. Activated vitamin D and its analogues can inhibit skin cell proliferation.
Phototherapy in the form of sunlight has long been used effectively for treatment. Wavelengths of 311–313 nm are most effective and special lamps have been developed for this application. The exposure time should be controlled to avoid over exposure and burning of the skin. The UVB lamps should have a timer that will turn off the lamp when the time ends. The amount of light used is determined by a person’s skin type. Increased rates of cancer from treatment appear to be small.
Psoralen and ultraviolet A phototherapy (PUVA) combines the oral or topical administration of psoralen with exposure to ultraviolet A (UVA) light. The mechanism of action of PUVA is unknown, but probably involves activation of psoralen by UVA light, which inhibits the abnormally rapid production of the cells in psoriatic skin. There are multiple mechanisms of action associated with PUVA, including effects on the skin immune system.
PUVA is associated with nausea, headache, fatigue, burning, and itching. Long-term treatment is associated with squamous cell carcinoma (but not with melanoma).
Psoriasis that is resistant to topical treatment and phototherapy is treated by medications taken internally by pill or injection (systemic). Patients undergoing systemic treatment are required to have regular blood and liver function tests because of the toxicity of the medication. Pregnancy must be avoided for the majority of these treatments. Most people experience a recurrence of psoriasis after systemic treatment is discontinued.
The three main traditional systemic treatments are methotrexate, cyclosporine and retinoids. Methotrexate and cyclosporine are immunosuppressant drugs; retinoids are synthetic forms of vitamin A. Patients taking methotrexate are prone to ulcerations. Methotrexate exposure may contribute to post-surgical events.
Biologics are manufactured proteins that interrupt the immune process involved in psoriasis. Unlike generalised immunosuppressant therapies such as methotrexate, biologics focus on specific aspects of the immune function leading to psoriasis. These drugs (interleukin antagonists) are relatively new, and their long-term impact on immune function is unknown, but they have proven effective in treating psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. Biologics are usually given by self-injection or in a doctor’s office.
Two drugs that target T cells are efalizumab and alefacept. Efalizumab is a monoclonal antibody which blocks the molecules that dendritic cells use to communicate with T cells. It also blocks the adhesion molecules on the endothelial cells that line blood vessels, which attract T cells. However, it suppressed the immune system’s ability to control normally harmless viruses, which led to fatal brain infections.
Several monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) target cytokines, the molecules that cells use to send inflammatory signals to each other. TNF-α is one of the main executor inflammatory cytokines. Four MAbs (infliximab, adalimumab, golimumab and certolizumab pegol) and one recombinant TNF-α decoy receptor, etanercept, have been developed against TNF-α to inhibit TNF-α signaling. Additional monoclonal antibodies have been developed against pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-12/IL-23 and Interleukin-17 and inhibit the inflammatory pathway at a different point than the anti-TNF-α antibodies. IL-12 and IL-23 share a common domain, p40, which is the target of the recently FDA-approved ustekinumab. Ustekinumab (IL-12/IL-23 blocker) was shown to have higher efficacy than high-dose etanercept over a 12-week period in patients with psoriasis.
In 2008, the FDA approved three new treatment options available to psoriasis patients: 1) Taclonex Scalp, a new topical ointment for treating scalp psoriasis; 2) the Xtrac Velocity excimer laser system, which emits a high-intensity beam of ultraviolet light, can treat moderate to severe psoriasis; and 3) the biologic drug adalimumab (brand name Humira) was also approved to treat moderate to severe psoriasis. Adalimumab had already been approved to treat psoriatic arthritis. The most recent biologic drug that has been approved to treat moderate to severe psoriasis, as of 2010, is ustekinumab (brand name Stelara).
Medications with the least potential for adverse reactions are preferentially employed. If the treatment goal is not achieved, then therapies with greater potential toxicity may be used. Medications with significant toxicity are reserved for severe unresponsive psoriasis. This is called the psoriasis treatment ladder. As a first step, medicated ointments or creams, called topical treatments, are applied to the skin. If topical treatment fails to achieve the desired goal, then the next step would be to expose the skin to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This type of treatment is called phototherapy. The third step involves the use of medications which are taken internally by pill or injection. This approach is called systemic treatment.
Some studies suggest psoriasis symptoms can be relieved by changes in diet and lifestyle. Fasting periods, low energy diets and vegetarian diets have improved psoriasis symptoms in some studies and diets supplemented with fish oil (in this study cod liver oil) have also shown beneficial effects – though evidence is still inconclusive and more research is needed to determine whether there is any benefit from diet manipulations. Fish oils are rich in the two omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and contain vitamin E, furthermore cod liver oil contains vitamin A and vitamin D.
The severity of psoriasis symptoms may also be influenced by lifestyle habits related to alcohol, smoking, weight, sleep, stress and exercise.
It has been suggested that cannabis might treat psoriasis, due to the anti-inflammatory properties of its cannabinoids, and their regulatory effects on the immune system. The adverse effects of cannabis might be avoided with a topical preparation or by the use of (a) more specific endocannabinoid receptor agonist(s).