GW MFA Dermatologist Sonya Burton, MD, Discusses Psoriasis

Sonya Burton, MD

As psoriasis sufferers know, flare-ups can be uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing, creating an unending cycle when stress then exacerbates those flare-ups. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Between lifestyle changes and treatment options, psoriasis can be managed. Here, Sonya Burton, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences, takes us through the causes, symptoms, and treatments for psoriasis.

What is psoriasis?

Burton: Psoriasis is a skin disease that causes red, flaky, and scaly plaques (raised areas of the skin). Psoriasis is a common condition affecting about 3% of the U.S. adult population (more than 10 million Americans). Psoriasis is not contagious; it cannot be spread from one person to another. 

What causes psoriasis?

Burton: Scientists have not identified the exact cause of psoriasis; however, it is known that the immune system becomes overactive in psoriasis. This causes immune cells to enter the skin and cause inflammation, which stimulates the skin cells to grow very rapidly and to pile up on the surface of the skin instead of being shed normally. This pile-up results in redness, thickening, and scaling of the skin.

What are symptoms of psoriasis?

Burton: Symptoms of psoriasis include reddish skin plaques (raised areas of skin) that are usually covered by silvery-white scales. The psoriasis plaques can be itchy in some cases. Although psoriasis can occur anywhere on the body, the most commonly affected areas include the scalp, elbows, knees, and lower back.

Does psoriasis run in the family?

Burton: Genetic factors do play a role in determining whether someone will develop psoriasis; about 40% of people with psoriasis have family members with psoriasis. Several genes have been identified that make people more susceptible to psoriasis, but there is no genetic test that can reliably predict whether an individual will develop the disease.

Can psoriasis be associated with any other health conditions?

Burton: Psoriasis can be associated with other health conditions because the inflammation associated with psoriasis can affect other tissues and organs as well. Up to one-third of individuals with psoriasis have psoriatic arthritis, which causes joint pain and swelling. Individuals with psoriasis have an increased risk of other medical problems, including heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, and depression.

What treatment options are available for psoriasis?

Burton: A number of treatment options are available. The most common treatments are topical medications that are applied directly to the skin, such as steroid (cortisone) creams and ointments. Most cases of psoriasis can be successfully treated with creams or ointments. Individuals with more severe psoriasis may benefit from other types of treatment, such as light therapy and biologic agents. Light therapy (phototherapy) involves exposure of the skin to an ultraviolet light source. Biologic agents are engineered molecules that reduce inflammation in the skin by targeting the overactive immune system that causes psoriasis. 

Is there a cure for psoriasis?

Burton: There is no cure for psoriasis at this time. The goal of treatment is to provide control of the condition by reducing the symptoms of psoriasis and improving the appearance of the skin. In many cases, treatment can be very effective at clearing up psoriasis. 

How can patients prevent psoriasis flare-ups?

Burton: Psoriasis flare-ups can be prevented or reduced by avoiding common triggers, such as stress, skin injury (such as cuts, scratches, bug bites, and sunburns), infection (such as Strep throat), dry skin, excess body weight, cigarette smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke, and heavy alcohol consumption.

How can the GW Medical Faculty Associates (MFA) help those with psoriasis?

Burton: The dermatologists at the GW MFA can help individuals with psoriasis by providing individualized and effective treatment plans using currently available medications and other treatments.

To make an appointment with a dermatologist, visit the GW Department of Dermatology or call 202-741-2600.

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