Psoriasis is a condition that impacts around 3 percent of the world’s population. It is an autoimmune disorder that can cause the skin to overgrow, resulting in scales or red patches that can itch, crack, and bleed. These patches commonly appear on the scalp, arms, legs, chest, hands, or feet.
During flare-ups, people with psoriasis may feel extra self-conscious, especially since people who see it may assume that it is a contagious or infectious skin disorder. But psoriasis is not contagious, and cannot be spread to another person.
In this article, I’ll explore what psoriasis is, its causes, and potential treatment options. We’ll also cover everything you need to know about how it spreads from one part of the body to the other, but discuss how it is not contagious to other people.
What is Psoriasis?
Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition that’s thought to be caused by an overactive immune system. When a person has psoriasis, their body grows skin cells much more quickly than is normal, which can lead to patches that itch, burn, crack, and even bleed.
Psoriasis can appear in many areas of the body. The different types of psoriasis are named for the areas of the body that are affected. It is possible to have more than one type at a time.
Psoriasis can also affect certain organs, and impact joints, causing psoriatic arthritis. Psoriasis is categorized as either non-pustular or pustular psoriasis. Non-pustular psoriasis is the most common type.
Subtypes of non-pustular psoriasis include:
- Scalp psoriasis (head, ears, neck)
- Palmoplantar psoriasis (palms of hands and soles of feet)
- Guttate psoriasis (arms, legs, and chest)
- Inverse psoriasis (folds of the skin)
- Psoriatic arthritis (joints)
- Erythrodermic psoriasis (whole body, the most severe type)
Pustular psoriasis is rare. Instead of patches or scales, it involves pustules that appear suddenly, usually alongside other symptoms like high fever, pain, and severe fatigue. Pustular types of psoriasis can occur on their own, or they may happen secondarily to someone who already has non-pustular psoriasis. Most types of pustular psoriasis require prompt medical treatment.
If left untreated, these pustules can lead to complications that can be life-threatening or fatal.
Pustular psoriasis includes different subtypes:
- Generalized pustular psoriasis
- Impetigo herpetiformis
- Barber’s pustular psoriasis
- Acrodermatitis continua of Hallopeau
Is Psoriasis Contagious?
Because psoriasis may have a genetic component, it is possible that several members of a family could develop psoriasis, but it would happen as a result of a person’s genetics and immune-related factors, not because family members “caught” psoriasis from each other.
Does Psoriasis Spread?
Psoriasis can spread throughout a person’s own body. Once someone has the condition, because it is driven by immune dysfunction, it is possible for psoriasis to start affecting other parts of the body.
But it does not spread from person to person.
How Does Psoriasis Develop?
Psoriasis is driven by inflammation and other triggers, which could include stress, certain medications, and more. Like other autoimmune conditions, an exact cause may not always be identifiable or understood.
Genetics and immune function play a role, so having other autoimmune disorders could increase the risk.
Within the immune system, there are several types of cells.
T cells are a type that are meant to fight bacterial infections and viruses. In people who have psoriasis, the T cells mistakenly start attacking healthy skin cells.
This leads to increased production of skin cells, as the body scrambles to replace the damaged ones. As a result, lots of skin cells are formed, but old ones are not sloughed off at the same pace.
This leads to patches of scaly-looking skin that build up on the surface of the skin.
Psoriasis flares can be triggered by lifestyle-related events, or by other medical conditions, such as:
- Not being active and living a sedentary lifestyle, whether through choice or disability
- Celiac disease
- Nutritional deficiencies or problems fully digesting or absorbing nutrients
- Sun exposure
- Infections or illness
- Skin injuries like cuts, bites, or burns
- Alcohol use
Medications can also be triggers for psoriasis flares.
These can include:
- Antimalarial drugs, like chloroquine
- Antiviral medications
- Arthritis medications
- Chemotherapy drugs
- Medications for skin conditions
- Monoclonal antibodies
- Oral steroids
There are no specific risk factors that are applicable only to psoriasis, but certain things may make you more at risk for developing psoriasis:
- Family history and genetics
Psoriasis can also increase the risk of developing other health conditions.
Disorders or conditions that may overlap with psoriasis include:
- Eye inflammation (uveitis)
- Type 2 diabetes
- Crohn’s disease
- Heart disease or heart attack
A healthcare provider can diagnose psoriasis with a physical examination.
In some cases, they may take a small skin sample for a biopsy to determine the specific type of psoriasis and to rule out other conditions. Tell your doctor about your family history, since psoriasis typically affects more than one person in a family.
There is no cure for psoriasis, but several treatment options may alleviate symptoms.
- Mild to moderate cases may be treated with prescription creams that contain nutrients like vitamin A or vitamin D. These can include anthralin, tazarotene, and calcipotriene. These creams may slow the speed at which the skin creates new cells. They may also help remove scales and address itchiness caused by inflammation.
- Topical steroid creams like betamethasone, clobetasol, or halobetasol can reduce symptoms during a flare. These are used for no more than 4 weeks at a time because they can thin the skin and increase the risk of complications.
- Injected steroids can be used if topical creams or steroids do not provide relief. These are usually only for severe cases.
If psoriasis does not respond to topical treatment or injectable steroids, or there are signs of psoriasis spreading elsewhere in the body, a medical provider may recommend systemic or biologic therapies.
These treat underlying causes of psoriasis flares like inflammation and immune activity.
Systemic treatments target the whole immune system.
These are reserved for more severe cases since they come with more risks.
- Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors
For moderate, but less severe cases, biologic or biosimilar treatments might be used.
They target certain cells of the immune system to curb overreaction.
These medications include:
- Secukinumab (Cosentyx)
- Adalimumab (Humira)
- Guselkumab (Tremfya)
As with other treatments for autoimmune disorders, these may cause side effects that include:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Increased risk of infection
- Suppressed immune function
Over-the-counter (OTC) treatments
Over-the-counter (OTC) treatment options are available for mild psoriasis. They can include topical creams, shampoos, solutions, or lotions. These work best when they are rotated.
Using them too frequently can make them less effective. Ask your healthcare provider for OTC recommendations.
Not every product labeled or marketed for psoriasis will be effective.
Look for products with active ingredients such as:
- Aloe vera: May help with discoloration, and scale buildup, and won’t cause side effects.
- Capsaicin: May help with pain relief, but is not recommended for long-term use. It can cause burning of the skin.
- Salicylic acid: May help reduce scales by clearing old skin, but can also lead to hair breakage if used on the scalp. It can also irritate sensitive skin.
Phototherapy is done at dermatology clinics and some hospitals.
It may be used as an alternative therapy or can be done in combination with other treatments. In phototherapy, a laser device that emits ultraviolet light UVB rays is placed over the areas that are affected.
Treatments are often up to three times per week for up to 8 weeks.
If you have mild psoriasis, or you want to prevent another flare, some lifestyle changes may be helpful:
- Manage stress: While this is not always possible, avoiding major stress triggers may help decrease psoriasis flares. This is true for most autoimmune conditions. You can practice deep breathing or meditation, get regular exercise, use aromatherapy, practice yoga, or many other things to support a healthy stress response.
- Avoid smoking and alcohol: Smoking on its own can be a risk factor for developing psoriasis, but both tobacco and alcohol can lead to psoriasis flares.
- Be consistent with treatments: If you use OTC remedies or have other treatment plans in place, being consistent can help decrease symptoms.
- Be gentle with your skin: Psoriasis can be itchy and uncomfortable, but scratching can make things worse, and may even increase the risk of developing an unrelated infection. Do not overuse steroid creams, since this can thin the skin, which could lead to more cuts and potential infections.
When to See a Medical Professional
If you think you have signs of psoriasis, you should see a medical provider for a proper diagnosis. In some cases, certain types of eczema or other skin disorders may look like psoriasis, and vice versa.
Different skin conditions require different treatments.
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can access online urgent care with K Health?
Check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes.
K Health’s AI-powered app is based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
A brief summary of clinical types of psoriasis. (2016).
Psoriasis (overview). (2013).
Evaluation of Psoriasis Genetic Risk Based on Five Susceptibility Markers in a Population from Northern Poland. (2016).
Drug-induced psoriasis: clinical perspectives. (2017).
Clobex (clobetasol propionate). (2008).
Management of scalp psoriasis: current perspectives. (2016).
Scalp Psoriasis: A Literature Review of Effective Therapies and Updated Recommendations for Practical Management. (2021).