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Autoimmune Diseases Can Damage Skin, Hair and Nails

November 8, 2018


According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, there are more than 50 million Americans living with autoimmune disorders. Sometimes a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease can take several years, especially when the viral-like symptoms are not taken seriously. If you think you are not well, or persistently feel off key, then your body might be telling you something. When autoimmunity is the cause, it is important to not let friends or family members influence your belief that your symptoms are all in your head. Instead, take control of your life and base your medical decisions on how you feel.

The first thing to know about an autoimmune disorder is that something in your immune system went rogue. Researchers believe over eighty disorders are caused by a faulty immune system attack on healthy tissues and organs. Autoimmune diseases can affect almost any part of the body, including the brain, heart, thyroid, pancreas, digestive tract, lungs, joints, blood vessels, lungs, skin, eyes, nerves, muscles or kidneys. Because symptoms of an autoimmune disease can mimic those of other acute illnesses, it is imperative to work with your doctor or dermatologist to determine an official diagnosis early on.

Although the blood cells in the body's immune system are supposed to protect against harmful invaders, faulty autoimmunity results in antibodies attacking healthy cells causing tissue, joint, and organ damage from the resulting inflammatory response. Since there is no way to know everything about autoimmune disorders, the trick is to learn as much about your disease as you can and make crucial changes in how you manage your life. With an accurate diagnosis and the right medical interventions, even those suffering with multiple disorders can live healthier and fuller lives and avoid a life filled with misery and illness.

How Autoimmune Disorders Affect Your Skin and Nails

It might seem silly that a skin disease like psoriasis could be caused by the same dysfunction as multiple sclerosis, but both are autoimmune disorders. Listed below are some of the more common types of autoimmune diseases:

  • Psoriasis - Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that speeds up the growth of skin cells, which results in inflamed patches. Scalp psoriasis often occurs on the forehead but can spread to the hair causing silvery scales. Since skin lesions traditionally precede joint symptoms, your dermatologist is in a unique position to help treat your psoriasis as well as identify psoriatic arthritis before irreversible joint damage occurs. Those who suffer from psoriasis can live a full and active life with the right management strategies to restore skin health.
  • Vitiligo - Vitiligo is a condition in which your skin loses melanin. The autoimmune disease occurs when the cells that produce melanin are destroyed and no longer form the pigment that determines the color of your skin, hair and eyes. It affects all races, but may be more noticeable in those with darker skin, as small areas of pigment loss spread with time. Dermatologic treatments can help slow the progression and restore some color to affected areas of skin. Associates in Dermatology president and medical director, Michael Steppie M.D., recently collaborated with Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute on a vitiligo research study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.
  • Lupus - No two cases of lupus are exactly alike, as symptoms may come on slowly or develop suddenly, however, a butterfly-shaped rash on a person's face that crosses the bridge of the nose and covers both cheeks is a tale-tell symptomatic effect. People with lupus often have excessively thick or rough nail folds and cuticles with spots or hyperpigmentation. Since lupus affects different parts of your life, it is important to work closely with your primary physician and dermatologist to help direct your personalized treatments and care.
  • Alopecia - For unknown reasons, the body's immune system disrupts normal hair formation by mistakenly attacking an enzyme produced by the hair follicles. This damage leads to smooth, roundish patches of hair loss. Some patients have alternating patterns of hair loss followed by spontaneous growth. People's reactions vary but you may simply prefer to let your baldness run its course untreated. Not all alopecia sufferers have nail problems, but it is common for nails to crumble, become spoon-shaped, or have a spotty or red lunula.
  • Autoimmune Arthritis - An early diagnosis of autoimmune arthritis like rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis allows for better treatment options and can help control damaging inflammation to slow the progression of the disease. Rheumatoid nodules are firm lumps typically seen under the skin of the hands, heels and elbows. Nodules can cluster or appear alone and the skin above can become infected or ulcerative. Psoriatic arthritis can affect the feet and toes causing the toenails to thicken and separate from the nail bed.
  • Hashimoto's Disease - According to the Mayo Clinic online, Hashimoto's disease is the most common cause of low thyroid-hormone production. The butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck regulates many metabolic activities but reduced hormone production can result in hair loss and a puffy face as well as crumbling, splitting, thinning or spoon-shaped nails. You are more likely to develop Hashimoto's disease if you already have another autoimmune disorder, but overall the disease is eight times more likely to affect women than men.
  • Multiple Sclerosis - Most symptoms of multiple sclerosis are a result of autoimmune damage to the brain, spinal cord and nerves, including skin conditions like tingling, itching, numbness and painful dysesthesia. While there is no sure-fire treatment for the phantom skin sensations, medications, topical creams, and TENS therapy may help you live a more normal life. The sensation of burning pain and sensitivity to touch most often occurs on the skin of the legs but some MS patients also complain of painful numbness in the fingertips and feet.

Unfortunately, symptoms of these puzzling autoimmune disorders do not follow a set pattern. Each condition can be mild, moderate or severe and may or may not affect the same areas of the body. Moreover, you can be affected by one or several autoimmune disorders.

Managing Autoimmune Conditions to Control Flare Ups

People suffering from symptoms, such as hair loss, rashes and nail deformities often overlook the role of his or her dermatologist in helping to diagnose, treat, and limit the spread of chronic diseases like lupus or psoriatic arthritis. Immune system disorders can happen to anyone at any age. The paradigm of these conditions is that a genetically predisposed person with hormonal imbalances encounters some environmental factor that triggers his or her autoimmunity. Physical and emotional stress may contribute to the development of a disorder. Unfortunately, the disease itself may cause significant stress, which can lead to a vicious cycle.

Once an autoimmune condition is correctly diagnosed, it can usually be managed with a combination of medications, therapies and lifestyle changes to arrest the spread of diseases to other organs. While conventional medicine continues to develop better methods of managing autoimmunity, you can work with your doctor and dermatologist to create a path to better health by focusing on factors that are completely within your control. In the past, medical providers stole medications from other specialties to treat autoimmune diseases. Finally, researchers are working at the cell level to design better treatments that work on the autoimmune conditions that need to be treated.

Although autoimmune diseases cannot be prevented, early recognition and treatment can be crucial for leading a healthier and fuller life. Whether you or a loved one are experiencing uncomfortable skin sensations, hair loss, or damaged nails, the dermatologists at Associates in Dermatology via our 15 locations are here to help. In addition to our clinical and cosmetic dermatology services, our practice is committed to providing unsurpassed Dermatopathology and personalized services to our patients through an "in-house" CAP (College of American Pathologists) or CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments) accredited laboratories.

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