PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Pamela Lennon was just 15 when she woke up on Christmas Day with the telltale signs of a lifelong disease.
"I had scabs. All red," she said. "It was all on my face, and you know how sensitive teenagers can be."
Soon the red, flaky patches showed up all over her body.
"My back, my ears, my legs, my butt," she said.
She was often too upset to go to school.
"The parents didn't want the kids around me. If you go around her, you'll get what she has. And I was always in tears," she says.
Psoriasis can look contagious, but it's not. Rather it's your immune system gone haywire, attacking your own skin. It can be triggered by infections or certain medications.
"You think of biblical times and leprosy. Many people thought to have leprosy probably had psoriasis," says dermatologist Dr. Brian Horvath.
While it can start at any age, there's a peak for people in their 20s and 30s, and another peak for those in their 50s and 60s. About four percent of Americans have this. The condition is not curable, but it is treatable.
"There are treatments to keep it under control, so no one can visibly see it. But without treatments, it will always come back," he says.
Pamela has tried them all -- steroid creams and shampoos, light therapy, even pills and injectable medicines to suppress the immune system.
Not only did she have serious side effects, none of them worked. But surgery for a different problem did.
"When I was a diabetic, I started getting psoriasis on my inner thigh. And then when I had the lap band surgery, it dissipated," she says.
"For people who are obese and have psoriasis, if they lose weight, their psoriasis gets better, regardless of any other treatments," says Dr. Horvath.
An association with arthritis is well known.
"If I wanted to do something like wash clothes, wash dishes, those were the things I couldn't do," she says.
Over the past decade, doctors are also finding an increased risk of other medical problems: three times the risk of heart disease, twice the risk of kidney disease and an increased risk of diabetes and cancer, especially lymphoma.
"In fact, having psoriasis seems to shorten your life span by three to five years," says Dr. Horvath.
While the reason is not clear, it may have something to do with inflammation. The question is - will treating psoriasis decrease the risk of these other diseases later?
"That is the active focus of research," says Dr. Horvath. "Next couple years, there'll be a lot more data available and we're very confident and hopeful that treating the psoriasis will reduce the risk of these other related disease. We don't have any form proof of that yet."
Pamela is not concerned, even though she's had diabetes, breast cancer and hardening of the arteries.
"I know I'm going to get something, and it's something I'm going to have to live with," she said.
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