Imagine being stung by fire ants. Constantly. All day, all night. That's how some sufferers describe psoriasis, an inflammatory skin disorder that affects about 2-3% of Americans. It causes red, scaly patches to appear on the skin, causing both pain and intense itching. It's not unusual for cold weather and wind to irritate skin and trigger flare-ups for psoriasis sufferers. Christy McBride says she spent 13 years hiding her skin and looking for relief. She's finally found it.
McBride is a high school accounting teacher and mother of two. She was 23, when out of the blue, she developed itchy, scaly red plaques on her scalp. At first, they were small. She didn't think too much about them.
"And then I got a sunburn, very badly, with blisters and everything," McBride said. "And it spread, everywhere."
Her psoriasis got so bad, Christy had to wear long sleeves at her wedding, worried about a flare up.
"It just got worse and worse, " she said. "I was completely covered. It was down on my forehead. Almost circling my face. My neck, everywhere. I couldn't cover it up anywhere."
She ended up in the emergency room, with an infection. Then, she developed arthritis pain.
By the time Christy came to Marietta Dermatology to see Dr. Mark Knautz, she was in bad shape.
"As soon, as I saw her, she was a patient where it was, like, 'Okay, we've got to get her cooled down. This is really bad,'" Dr. Knautz remembers.
Knautz said psoriasis is an inflammatory skin condition that flares up when our immune system is thrown off-kilter. It usually involves two factors: a sufferer is genetically predisposed to psoriasis, and he or she experiences a trigger that exacerbates the condition.
That trigger can be stress, injury to the skin, certain medications or an infection. In Christy's case, the trigger was a bad sunburn.
"So you don't catch it. It's not an infectious condition," Knautz said. "It's really something you were programmed to have. And something triggers it and makes it want to come out."
Christy and Knautz started trying different medications to suppress her immune system and try to control the flare ups. She spent a decade covering up her skin, wearing long sleeves and pants even in the Georgia summer heat. She didn't like the way strangers looked at her skin; it was embarrassing.
"When you have this this severely, or even if you have it a little, no matter how confident you are, it affects you internally," McBride said.
"It changes your life," said Dr. Knautz. "This may not be a life-threatening condition, but you talk about one of the most life-altering conditions? Psoriasis has got to be at the top."
The good news is there are new drugs and treatments for psoriasis. One class is called "biologics." The drugs target a specific part of the patient's immune system that seems to be triggering the flare ups.
After more than a decade of trial and error, Christy found Cosentyx, a new biologic she injects once a month into her abdomen. Today, she says, her skin in 95% clear. Dr. Knautz said that kind of response is huge.
"In the past, if someone got 50% improvements, that was considered phenomenal," Knautz said. "Now we're talking about improvements of 90% or better."