By Serena Gordon
FRIDAY, Sept. 13 (HealthDay News) -- For the legions of Americans living with the red, scaly patches of psoriasis, doctors have good news.
"We are at a point where we can help almost anyone, and we can do it fairly safely," said Dr. Mark Lebwohl, who chairs the National Psoriasis Foundation's medical board. "If you have psoriasis, there's usually a treatment out there that will make you better."
Some 7.5 million people in the United States have the autoimmune disease, yet it's unknown to millions of others.
The telltale scaly patches often occur on the outside of the elbows, knees and scalp, but they can appear anywhere on the skin and may itch, sting or burn. Some people with psoriasis also develop psoriatic arthritis, which causes stiffness, pain, throbbing, swelling and tenderness in one or more joints.
Symptoms vary from person to person, as does severity of the disease. Some people are affected mildly, while others have signs of the disease over most of their body.
But Lebwohl said there are more treatment options available today than ever before, and more are on the way. "We have medicines that are pretty safe and incredibly effective for the large majority of patients," he said.
For most people, the first line of treatment is a topical medication. Topical corticosteroids are probably the most common first treatment, he said, and they often work very well but are prone to such side effects as thinning skin and stretch marks.
Dr. Janet Lin, a dermatologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, also noted that people can develop a resistance to topical corticosteroids, which means the medication won't work any longer.
Another topical treatment is a class of medications known as vitamin D analogues, which Lin said "help normalize the growth of the skin cells, and they don't have the side effects of corticosteroids." Examples are calcipotriol, calcitriol and tacalcitol.
Lin said that steroids injected into areas with psoriasis patches can help thin out the scales, but they can be used only in limited areas.