Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

For many people, psoriasis skin plaques don’t improve significantly after topical treatment with ointments or creams. And, sometimes, too much skin is affected by psoriasis, making topical treatment impractical.

Advanced psoriasis treatments are “systemic,” which means they affect the whole body. These systemic psoriasis treatments can be more effective and convenient than topical therapies.

At the same time, systemic psoriasis drugs have more potential side effects. Knowing the benefits and risks of systemic psoriasis treatment can help you and your doctor make the right choice for treatment of your psoriasis.

Topical vs. Systemic Psoriasis Treatment

Topical therapies are any psoriasis treatment that’s applied on the skin. Absorption into the bloodstream and effects elsewhere in the body are minimal. Common topical treatments include:

  • Corticosteroids (such as hydrocortisone or fluocinonide), moisturizers, anthralin, coal tar, tazarotene, and calcipotriene.
  • Ultraviolet light (phototherapy) can also be focused only onto affected areas of skin.

Systemic psoriasis treatments, working on the entire body, often act on the immune system to reduce psoriasis activity over large areas of the body. These are used to treat moderate to severe psoriasis. Advanced psoriasis treatments include:

  • Oral drugs (pills) such as methotrexate, Soriatane, Otezla, and cyclosporine.
  • Biologic therapies, including Enbrel, Humira, Remicade, and Stelara. These are injectable medicines.
  • Phototherapy, or ultraviolet light treatment to the whole body.

While systemic psoriasis treatments are far more effective than topical creams, they also have more potential side effects and are more expensive.

Severity of Psoriasis Is Important

In considering systemic psoriasis treatment, consider how severe your psoriasis is. Doctors divide people with psoriasis according to how much skin is affected:

  • Mild-to-moderate or limited psoriasis: Less than 3% of total body surface is affected. (For reference, the palm of the hand is about 1% of total body area.)

  • Moderate psoriasis: 3% to 10% or more of body surface is affected.

  • Severe psoriasis: greater than 10% is affected.

A doctors’ rule of thumb: Limited psoriasis can be managed with topical therapies. For moderate-to-severe psoriasis, regularly applying topical creams to all the skin affected may be unrealistic. Most doctors recommend systemic psoriasis treatment for moderate-to-severe psoriasis.

Doctors also often recommend patients continue to use topical psoriasis ointments while taking system treatments. The combination leads to better results than either treatment used alone.

Psoriasis and Quality of Life

Doctors and psoriasis sufferers don’t always agree on what’s mild and what’s serious. Psoriasis can affect self-image and make people self-conscious. This can even lead to depression and social isolation. These are serious effects of psoriasis.

Only a frank discussion with your doctor about what living with psoriasis means to you will get these issues out in the open.

Health IQ

Test your knowledge about your skin.

Take Quiz