Is psoriasis an autoimmune disease? What happens when our immune systems decide to attack our bodies rather than keep them safe from threatening illnesses?
Our immune systems protect our bodies from threatening substances. It’s able to identify harmful microbes and dangerous molecules. It also defends the body from disease and infection. However, the immune system doesn’t always work properly.
In this case, people develop autoimmune diseases. The immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues and organs presuming they’re dangerous. These abnormal immune responses lead to weakening bodily functions and symptoms. In some cases, it can even become life-threatening.
Psoriasis is classically described as a chronic autoimmune disease. Special immune cells called T cells become overactive and attack the skin cells. This process leads to inflammation of the skin and a faster than normal growth of skin cells.
For example, healthy individuals’ skin cells form in the tissue and arrive at the surface in about 30 days. Those with psoriasis have their skin cells reach the superficial layer of the skin within days. This creates thick skin lesions covered with white silvery scales.
Psoriasis is also classified as a chronic inflammatory condition. It has periods of acute flare-ups followed by remissions.
There is also a genetic component associated with psoriasis. Studies identified a number of genetic variants, which may play a role in the development of psoriasis. If a family member has this condition, you are more likely to develop it as well.
Environmental factors also contribute to psoriasis. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “Genetics load the gun and environment pulls the trigger.” This is certainly true when referring to psoriasis. Genetics are likely not enough to cause or aggravate symptoms. However, there are many environmental triggers.
These environmental triggers include:
The good news is that identifying these triggers allows those with psoriasis to manage their autoimmune disease.
Psoriasis as an Autoimmune Disease
Since we regard psoriasis as an autoimmune disease, you may be wondering how this can help you. The answer is simple: the more you understand psoriasis, the more you can do to manage symptoms. You’ll also understand why your doctor may offer certain treatments.
Due to psoriasis being an autoimmune disease, the drugs to treat it target the immune system. Corticosteroids suppress the immune system. These come in topical forms like ointments and creams. This treatment is for mild cases of psoriasis.
Oral corticosteroids and other immunosuppressant drugs (methotrexate, cyclosporine, and biologics) treat severe forms. Doctors often prescribe this when topical treatments don’t work.
Dermatologists can adjust treatments over time as needed. They can also answer any questions patients may have about the risks of medications.
There are different stages of psoriasis. Doctors classify mild cases when it affects less than 3% of the skin. A case is severe when it affects 10% of the body. Everything between is moderate psoriasis.
However, since psoriasis is an autoimmune disease, inflammatory responses happen throughout the body. It doesn’t just affect the skin. Up to 30% of people develop psoriatic arthritis, affecting the joints. Psoriasis may also affect arteries and major organs.
In addition, developing one autoimmune disease increases the chances of having others. People with psoriasis are more likely to have Crohn’s disease, pemphigus, vitiligo, and others.
So, what does this mean for you? It means you should have regular follow-ups with your doctor. They can screen you for other autoimmune diseases and treat them if needed.
Managing Psoriasis as an Autoimmune Disease
To manage symptoms of an autoimmune disease usually means making lifestyle changes. Avoiding triggers and having a healthy lifestyle matters.
Protect your skin and avoid injuries and sunburn when outside. If you know a certain fabric or product irritates your skin, avoid using it.
Stress is another factor that can cause a flare-up. Learn to manage your stress through techniques like yoga, meditation, and counseling. Depression is also an emerging risk factor for the development of autoimmune diseases.
Certain medications can also cause flare-ups. Ask your doctor if the medication you’re taking may be a trigger.
Healthy lifestyle habits support your overall health and immune system function. Make sure you have a healthy diet, sleep well, and exercise regularly. Don’t smoke and limited or eliminate alcohol and highly processed foods.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease, which places it alongside many other conditions. While rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis are classically described as autoimmune diseases, there may be more in the future.