Autoimmune diseases impact about 23.5 million Americans every year. Of those people, about 80% of them are women. That being said, the type of autoimmune disease varies as does the severity of it and its effect on your skin.
What is an autoimmune disease?
“An autoimmune condition is when the body’s own immune system has problems differentiating between itself and foreign invaders. This causes the immune system to attack the body’s own healthy tissues.”
You can think of it like your body’s own cells get confused about which are good ones and which are not. Without being able to differentiate this vitally important function, your immune cells attack the otherwise healthy cells simply because they’re mistaking them for harmful ones.
Why would an autoimmune disease affect the skin?
Autoimmune disorders affect more than just the skin. However, your skin is the outermost layer of your body, and your largest organ.
“Skin is the largest organ in the body and our immune system protects all aspects of our body. Any dysregulation in the immune system can affect any organ or system in our body.”
Because your skin is the first line of defense to the outside world, it’s the first line of immunity defense as well. Your cells here are likely to be attacked as a result.
What are some common autoimmune diseases that show up on the skin?
Not all autoimmune diseases impact the skin. However, we do treat plenty of these conditions that do show up on the skin—and are sometimes even mistaken for other types of skin conditions, and therefore treated ineffectively.
Here are the common autoimmune diseases that show up on your skin:
Alopecia areata – This autoimmune disease is when you experience sudden hair loss and baldness, specifically in patchy areas. This happens when your immune system actually attacks the hair follicles.
Vitiligo – You may have seen this present as areas where the skin loses its pigmented cells called melanocytes. Usually, this happens in patchy areas on the whole body and isn’t just limited to skin; hair and mucous membranes can also experience discoloration.
Morphea – This is a more rare condition that presents in discolored skin patches that are painless. You may find these color changes on the back, chest, or belly, and also your face, legs, and arms. If left untreated, these patches can end up becoming firm, smooth, and dry.
Psoriasis – You’ve likely heard of this autoimmune disease. Psoriasis is fairly common one and shows up as patches of thick red skin that can even look and feel scaly. These patches are often found on the scalp, elbows, knees, lower back, face, palms, and even the soles of your feet.
Lichen sclerosus – While uncommon, this skin condition is when your skin takes on a white, thin appearance. Typically, it affects the genital and anal areas.
Cicatricial alopecia – Different from alopecia areata, this autoimmune disease is an inflammatory condition. It damages your hair follicles, leaving scarring and permanent hair loss behind.
Discoid lupus – This chronic condition shows up as coin-shaped rashes on the skin that get worse when in sunlight. You’ll likely find this autoimmune disease showing up on the scalp, face, and ears more than other areas.
What are some rare autoimmune diseases that affect skin?
While the following conditions are less common, they do still show up from time to time in clients, and must be treated.
Rare autoimmune diseases that affect your skin:
- Epidermolysis bullosa acquisita
- Pemphigus vulgaris
- Pemphigus foliaceous
- Bullous pemhigoid
- Ig a mediated bullous dermatosis
- Mucous membrane pemphigoid
- Behcet’s syndrome
- Dermatitis herpetiformis
- Systemic lupus erythematous
How do you treat skin conditions that are caused by an autoimmune disease?
Because some skin conditions can often be mistaken for others, it’s crucial that you see a dermatologist who is trained in differentiating these. Otherwise, you may self-treat a skin condition and make it worse in the long-term.
“Topical steroids can be a mainstay of treatment for mild autoimmune conditions, but sometimes may need systemic therapy including immunosuppressant treatments.”
Is there anything else you recommend to ease skin issues caused by autoimmune?
“It is very important when dealing with rare autoimmune conditions that dermatologists work in collaboration with rheumatologists to control systemic symptoms. Some autoimmune conditions may be worsened with sunlight or UV light, so sunblock is very important in these instances.”
Ultimately, only a trained dermatologist can help you understand the impact of your autoimmune disease on your skin and create a plan to help you treat it in full. Click here to schedule your appointment and find solutions for your skin today!
Melissa attained her undergraduate degree at Ursuline College in which she graduated with honors. She was the recipient of the Who’s Who Among American Colleges and Universities in 2000, and the recipient of the St. Catherine Medal in 1999. She was also inducted into Sigma Theta Tau, the nursing honor society. While in her senior year, she was a missionary to El Salvador and served as an international observer in El Salvador’s first democratic election.
After Graduation, Melissa worked at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center as a surgical intensive care unit nurse and completed her Master’s of Science in Nursing in 2003 at Case Western Reserve University. She graduated with honors and was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Excellence in Population Based Pediatric Nursing.