(LifeWire) - After 43 years of living with psoriasis, Leah Bird is used to the stares and the remarks -- well, almost.
"I've had people grab their children's hands and pull them away from me," says the Newton, Mass., resident, who developed psoriasis when she was 12.
"In a public place, unless I make eye contact with them, people are fairly aghast about it, because it looks like something dangerous," says Bird.
Psoriasis isn't contagious or dangerous to others. But for those who have the condition -- an estimated 6 to 7.5 million Americans, or roughly 2% of the U.S. population -- it can be debilitating or even disabling, and it can have a heavy emotional toll. Coping with your own feelings is one issue, but coping with the reactions of others can be a challenge as well.
Psoriasis is characterized by thick red lesions encrusted with silvery scales. It is caused by an immune system gone awry, leading skin cells to become inflamed and turn over much more quickly than normal. There's no cure, so people with psoriasis treat it symptomatically, using a myriad of treatments from ointments to phototherapy to injected medications in attempts to keep the chronic, itchy and painful condition under control.
That's a lot easier when you're someone like me, who currently just has lesions on my forearms and scalp. But the disease follows an outbreak-and-remission pattern, staying quiet for long periods of time and then rearing up with a vengeance and covering large portions of a person's body.
In her worst episodes, Bird says, 85% of her skin has been affected, making it hard to completely conceal it from the curious or the ignorant.
"I often hear comments muttered about me," she says.
"I'm fairly bullish about it. I just tell people it's psoriasis, and then I add that it's not contagious. I think that's what people are concerned about," adds Bird.
My own experience mirrors Bird's. I've been asked if my psoriasis is poison ivy, or if I've fallen and scraped my arms or legs, or if I have a lot of bug bites.
The fact is, psoriasis looks like a lot of other common skin problems, a few that can spread to others, such as chicken pox. However, most skin problems cannot be spread to others.
It's always seemed to me that people's negative reactions stem from those biblical stories of lepers being shunned. Both psoriasis and leprosy do have at least one thing in common, and that is, both produce characteristic red patches. But leprosy is caused by a bacteria, which is curable, and it is extremely rare in the US and other developed countries.
Given the way some people treat her, Bird says, she might as well have leprosy -- as it's popularly (mis)understood. She can't even get a pedicure or facial at her local salon without causing a stir.
"People generally treat you like you're on fire," she says.
"I dread those kinds of moments. The big issue with psoriasis is it's so demoralizing. You always have to be aware of it," she adds.
To cope with reactions from the uninformed, people with psoriasis should practice the following:
Do Not Make It Personal: Remember the stares and insensitive comments from others likely reflect a simple lack of knowledge. Don't dwell on it.
Make Eye Contact with Others: Nobody's condition seems as scary when eye contact is made, especially along with smiling.
Tactfully Educate Others: Bird once posted a sign in her health club locker room telling others about herself and her condition so they could be prepared in advance for what they would see. A one-liner delivered nicely can also inform: "I have psoriasis. Millions of people have it, and it's not contagious."
Sources:Bird, Leah. Newton, MA. Phone interview (617-244-6111). 15 April 2008.
"Psoriasis." National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Information Clearinghouse. May 2003. National Institutes of Health. 11 Apr. 2008. <http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Psoriasis/default.asp>.
"Psoriasis." MayoClinic.com. 20 Mar. 2007. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. 15 Apr. 2008. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/print/psoriasis/DS00193/METHOD=pr>.
"Leprosy." WHO.int. Oct 2005. World Health Organization. 15 Apr. 2008. <http://www.who.int./mediacentre/factsheets/fs101/en/index.html>
LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Maureen Salamon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer who has written for newspaper, website and hospital clients. She has suffered from psoriasis for nearly three decades.