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How do medications treat plaque psoriasis?

Dr. Mark W. Moronell, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Light therapy, topical and other drugs control psoriasis by relieving symptoms and outbreaks.

Topical medicine is applied to the skin. These medicines help control mild to moderate psoriasis. Topical treatments include:

  • Corticosteroids (cortisone), which are the most frequently prescribed medication for treating mild to moderate psoriasis are available as a cream, ointment, gel, foam, spray, and lotion. Some corticosteroids are very strong and are used for short periods. These help clear the skin.
  • Anthralin is often used to treat thick patches of psoriasis.
  • Calcipotriene and Calcipotriol (vitamin D3 Preparations) are often used along with a corticosteriod.
  • Retinoids (vitamin A preparations) can sometimes control psoriasis without additional drugs. Women should not use a retinoid if they are pregnant.
  • Coal tar has been used to safely and effectively treat psoriasis for hundreds of years.
  • Biologics, which are given to patients with moderate to severe psoriasis, may be a treatment option. The FDA approved the first biologic for psoriasis in 2003. Today, dermatologists have a choice of biologics that can be used to treat psoriasis. Research shows that these biologics may slow or even stop joint damage. Biologics are given by injection (shot) or infusion (IV).

Light therapy, as used by a trained dermatologist, can safely and effectively treat psoriasis. Light therapy includes:

  • Laser treatments to target the psoriasis with a strong dose of light, while not touching the surrounding skin.
  • Ultraviolet B (UVB) light therapy, where the patient stands in a light box or in front of a light panel. If the psoriasis responds, about 24 treatments over a two-month period should clear the psoriasis.
  • PUVA, used when psoriasis does not respond to other treatments. This treatment combines a medication called psoralen with UVA light therapy. Research shows that PUVA is effective in about 85 percent of cases.
  • Goeckerman Treatment

Topical medicines and oral and injectible drugs are medications used to treat plaque psoriasis. Most people with plaque psoriasis use some form of topical ointment. These medicines, like corticosteroid creams or synthetic vitamin D3, are applied directly to the skin. These medicines lubricate the skin, reduce inflammation, decrease skin cell turnover and some suppress the immune system.

More severe cases of plaque psoriasis may require pills or injections. These drugs also reduce skin cell turnover and suppress the immune system. Side effects are common with these medicines and often are reserved for when other treatments have become less effective.

Dr. Douglas E. Severance, MD
Family Practitioner

Along with OTC therapies, prescription "topical" medications are used immediately to treat plaque psoriasis. Prescription topical therapies slow down the rapid cell growth and calm the inflammation linked to psoriasis.

Prescription topical therapies may or may not contain corticosteroids. Dovonex (calcipotriene) is a synthetic vitamin D3 that helps to slow down skin cell growth, flatten the raised lesions and remove the scales from plaque psoriasis. Calcipotriene can be used to treat plaque psoriasis on nails and scalp. Taclonex (calcipotriene and betamethasone dipropionate) also slows skin cell growth, flattens the raised lesions, removes scales and reduces inflammation and itching. Tazorec (tazarotene) is a vitamin A derivative. This topical retinoid slows skin cell growth. The psoriasis plaques may become extremely red when using this therapy, but it is usually not painful.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.