Damage limitation is the only cure for psoriasis
After years of trying to find a cure for psoriasis, I have learned to manage the condition
Model Cara Delevingne: Delevingne’s psoriasis flared up during London Fashion week, when covered in scabs she had to be painted with make-up for the catwalk. Photograph: Ray Tamarra/Getty Images
Arlene Harris: ‘I have learnt to live with psoriasis but in the meantime, my next worry is passing it on to my children.’
Delevingne’s psoriasis flared up during London Fashion week, when covered in scabs she had to be painted with make-up for the catwalk. Approximately 120,000 people in Ireland and 125 million worldwide struggle with the condition.
Having watched my older brother cope with psoriasis since he was a child, I was aware of how traumatic it can be but while sympathising with his plight over the years, I didn’t really empathise. How could I? I had never experienced the physical and emotional hold it can have over an otherwise sane person.
But my opinion changed when 15 years ago, I began to see the tell-tale signs appearing on my own skin, firstly on my scalp.
Resistant to steroids
My form of psoriasis is the most difficult of all to treat. It seems to be resistant to all of the steroid-based ointments which offer temporary reprieve to other parts of the body.
My little patch on the left side of my head quickly spread to cover my whole scalp. Initially I tried the whole range of specially medicated shampoos combined with topical treatments which stung like the blazes but were designed to “attack the root cause” and eradicate all traces of psoriasis.
From the best known brands to the most obscure products found on intensive internet searches, I have tried them all and have come to the conclusion that despite their claims of success, not one of them has the ability to make a blind bit of long-term difference (apart from to your bank balance).
My scalp was incessantly itchy and my once-thick hair had become lank and fine. I was at my wits’ end.
After several visits to my GP, I was referred to a specialist who prescribed a “revolutionary” new product which was “guaranteed” to reward me with a scale-free scalp.
I bought the product with great expectation. It was outrageously expensive and incredibly greasy. The instructions advised me not to use for more than a week at a time and in my haste to get on the road to recovery, I just scanned the side effects quickly before covering my head in the gooey gunk.
The product was disgusting, grease all over everything and despite washing my hair repeatedly each day I still looked like I had just taken my head out of a deep-fat fryer. But I was prepared to go the extra mile if it meant I would finally be free of scalp psoriasis.
And at the end of my seven-day application, a miracle happened. For the first time in a decade, my scalp was clear. I couldn’t believe it. How had I not discovered this before and saved myself years of misery? So I carried on, following the instructions which encouraged me to reduce the amount I was using bit by bit until I no longer needed it.
However, a couple of days after my “cure”, my scalp began to feel itchy again and within a week, it was covered in psoriatic scales. I am a naturally optimistic person, but this was really getting me down. So I turned to the alternative options – goat’s milk does wonders for psoriasis, or so I was told.
Trying to work up a lather with a lumpy, creamy concoction is quite a feat, but I persisted. However, apart from smelling like a milking parlour, there was little change in my appearance.
I then turned to a mixture of dried seaweed and natural yoghurt which, when combined together, rubbed into the scalp and left to do its thing for at least 30 minutes every day for three weeks, my scalp was guaranteed to be clear and scale-free.
Once again, I persisted in another messy treatment, which initially started to work but after a few weeks of application, the scales returned to torment me once again.
Meanwhile the occasional spots of psoriasis on my torso were gaining momentum.
So I went back to my doctor who prescribed a steroid cream. At first, this worked wonders on eradicating the unsightly patches. But within days a new area would be attacked, leaving a faint trace of scarred skin in the wake of the original site.
To someone not going through the daily angst of a skin condition, this might sound trivial but when you are the person suffering, it becomes all consuming. Despite being busy with work and family life, much of each day is taken up with worrying about your skin.
No one is entirely sure what causes psoriasis – immune deficiency, genetic trait or sheer bad luck? But a lot of researchers agree that it can be exacerbated by stress and, of course, the very nature of a visible skin condition causes you to feel anxious and exposed, and so continues the vicious circle.
I know it’s not a life-threatening illness, but a vast number of sufferers go on to develop psoriatic arthritis and for those who don’t, the constant worry about your skin chips away at your self-esteem every day.
When I first developed psoriasis, I was devastated and worried constantly about how I was going to get rid of it. But now I have reached the point of damage limitation. I know that it’s not going away, so I have to get on with life and ensure that intense moisturising becomes part of my daily routine. I am continuing with Aalgo, the organic seaweed treatment, I am using a natural moisturiser called Salcura Zeoderm which is designed for psoriasis and also have the steroid creams to hand for days when everything gets a little out of control.
Over time, I have learnt to live with psoriasis but in the meantime, my next worry is passing it on to my children.
Dr Brian Kirby, consultant dermatologist at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, says while there is no cure, there are plenty of ways of keeping the symptoms at bay.
“Psoriasis is an immune disorder of which, unfortunately, there is no cure at the moment,” he says. “But there are a lot of different treatments which can bring great relief to sufferers. There are some very good topical creams which help to relieve symptoms but need to be used correctly. Many people stop applying the cream rather than reducing the amount slowly and this will cause the symptoms to return with a vengeance.
“If topical treatment really isn’t working, then the skin can be treated with UV light which is very effective but unfortunately there is a very long waiting list for this on the public health system as the area is grossly under-resourced,” he adds.
Sunshine is also a great help for 90 per cent of psoriasis patients while for 5 per cent it makes the condition worse.
Caroline Irwin, chairwoman of the Psoriasis Association of Ireland, says although psoriasis can be genetic, it can strike anyone at any age. “Psoriasis affects 2 per cent of the population and while it is a genetic disorder (one-fifth of psoriasis patients have a strong family history of the condition), it can affect anyone from birth to the grave,” she says. “The most common age group to develop psoriasis is college students and while stress does aggravate it, it isn’t the cause.
“This is largely unknown and unfortunately there is no known cure, but it can be managed effectively.
“However, while people can get very stressed and desperate to find a solution, many will turn to alternative remedies to try to get rid of the scales, but to my mind, there are a lot of quacks cashing in on these people so I would advise anyone with psoriasis to go to their GP and if nothing prescribed there has any effect, they should ask to be referred to a dermatologist who will find a solution – one way or other.”
Caroline is looking for sufferers to set up support groups in their local area and to contact her for advice on 086 339 5308 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
For alternative treatments visit econatural.ie