Jennifer Hill took her class of young students out to the zoo one day. When she returned to school, some other teachers asked why was the only one who came back with a sunburn.

Surprised, Hill, now 39, looked in a mirror to see for herself. "I was red, head-to-toe," she said.

Hill went directly to her doctor's office, where it was suspected that she had a case of shingles. 

But, no, it wasn't shingles. She ultimately was diagnosed with a severe case of psoriasis. On a scale of 1-10, her physician told Hill, her case "was a 30."

The Davenport woman has now sought treatment for her psoriasis for nearly a decade. That has included the use of new "biologic" shots, which can cost $500-$1,000 apiece. They did not work in her case.

"I gave myself a shot every day for a couple of years, but for me, that just maintained my psoriasis. It never got better, or worse," she said.

This mother of a teenage daughter, Hill now finds help from the Psoriasis Day Care Center at the Soderstrom Skin Institute in Davenport.

Awareness month

The National Psoriasis Foundation sponsors Psoriasis Awareness Month in August to encourage research and advocate for better care for people with psoriasis, as well as raise awareness, according to the website psoriasis.org.

It is the most prevalent autoimmune disease in the United States, affecting an estimated 7.5 million men and women.

Psoriasis occurs when the immune system sends out faulty signals, resulting in painful red, scaly patches on the skin that bleed and itch. In normal skin, the cells grow every 28 days, but in psoriatric skin, it takes four days, and then the cells pile up on one another. 

The cause is unknown and no cure has been found. Psoriasis it is not contagious and not infectious.

It can be genetic in nature, having been found to run in families, but psoriasis also may be caused by stress or by an infection such as strep throat. Hill's case originated from stress, she said, since it started about the time her mother died.

The itch from psoriasis is extremely painful, described by some patients like the bite of fire ants.

"I'll never age," Hills jokes. "I get, like, new skin every week or so."

Quality of life 

Psoriasis is devastating to the people who have it, said Dr. Carl Soderstrom of the skin institute. Evidence of the disorder occurs on the hands, face, nails and other parts of the body.

"People look at you strangely, ask you questions. Many with psoriasis are quite self-conscious about it," the dermatologist said. It can occur in many places of the body, and excess skin is shed on sheets, blankets and clothing.

"It's just a horrible disease to have to live with," Soderstrom added.

Treatments vary

Teri Geitner, the psoriasis coordinator at the skin clinic, sees patients after they have been diagnosed. The disorder is especially painful twice a year, she said: spring and autumn, or when the weather changes.

Geitner's treatment methods include two types of therapy that have been proven effective: light therapy, which was discovered about 100 years ago, and a new excimer laser, which focuses the light beams on targeted areas of the body.

If insurance coverage is available, Geitner uses both types of treatment for many of her patients. "That works faster and gets the patients back to their quality of life more quickly," she said.

Soderstrom explained that a wide selection of treatments is available because what might work for one person does not for another. Those include: creams, lotions, moisturizers and some strong medications as well as the light therapy.

He noted that the new biologic compounds (which have been advertised on television), can help some individuals.

A nutritious diet, an exercise program and a moisturizing routine are really helpful to most psoriasis patients, said Geitner the nurse.

"People don't relate their skin to diet, but diet has everything to do with the skin. That's the same with exercise," she said.

For those with psoriasis, Geitner has some basic advice. "Seek help, get the creams, lotions and light treatments. There are many ways to help and no reason to suffer anymore," she added.

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