From acne to eczema, psoriasis and skin cancer, we ask an expert about the most common dermatology problems here and what we can do to minimise our risks
Beauty is only skin-deep, so the saying goes. And while that may be true when it comes to our personality, when it comes to our skin, a few dermatology woes can have even the best of us feeling glum.
With that in mind, we talk to an expert to find out the most common skin complaints and what we can do to get them sorted.
“Some of the most common problems I see in the clinic here are things like eczema, allergies and urticaria (hives) and inflammatory diseases like psoriasis,” explains Dr Uttam Kumar, specialist in dermatology at Burjeel Hospital.
“There are also many diseases that can manifest in the skin. Things like renal disease, diabetes, thyroid conditions or certain types of cancer – these can show in the skin.
“People do have a tendency of ignoring problems with their skin, because they do not perceive some issues, such as moles, to be harmful if they are not causing any problems,” he adds. “That is why it’s so important to see a doctor if you’re unsure.”
“Eczema is one of the most common problems I see,” Dr Uttam notes. “It’s really a general term and there are many types. Most cases have a genetic predisposition, so if someone in your family has a history of allergies like hay fever or asthma, this is a risk factor.”
In the initial stages, symptoms can include itchy, red skin with small blisters that ooze, but with chronic eczema, the skin becomes dry and rough, and may bleed without proper care.
“This kind of inflammation can also be aggravated by other allergens in the environment, like food or things like washing powder,” he continues. “The skin barrier may also not be properly developed, so patients will lose water from the skin, which will aggravate it. All these things together lead to eczema.”
As a first port of call to soothe the itching, steroid creams are commonly prescribed, but Dr Uttam cautions that they are not for long-term use.
“Steroids are not the solution for treating eczema; we can use these to treat the initial inflammation, but not for a long time,” he advises. “You need to treat the dry skin – use an emollient moisturiser to keep the dry skin hydrated and avoid any irritants you can identify, which might be in scents, fabrics and clothing or food.”
With an estimated 100 million sufferers worldwide, psoriasis is a global problem that causes thickened, scaly skin that may be painful and itchy.
While its initial presentation might appear to just be a surface condition, Dr Uttam says it’s a whole-body disease, with its own associated list of conditions.
“It’s considered a multi-system disease,” he notes. “It has an effect on the joints and can be linked to other conditions, such as metabolic syndrome. Obesity and diabetes are also risk factors.”
Symptoms typically start with thickened patches of skin located on the scalp, causing embarrassment to its sufferers.
“It can look like dandruff, and many patients come to me believing that,” Dr Uttam comments, “but the patches are much thicker. It can also appear on pressure points on the body, like the palms and soles or elbows. This is very common, and very painful.
“It is a systemic inflammatory condition, meaning it needs to be controlled properly rather than just treating the symptoms,” he adds.
Treatments depend on the severity, ranging from creams to control the dry skin to oral medications and light therapy.
The bane of our teenage years, we think we leave the boils and zits behind when we reach adulthood – but it’s not always the case.
“It’s not just for teenagers and young adults,” Dr Uttam notes. “Acne can affect any age. Conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, for example, can manifest later in life and provoke acne.”
With other causes including pre-disposing genetic factors, hormonal fluctuations and environmental factors such as hot, humid climates and oily skin, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly why some of us suffer from bad skin.
But how do you know when your spots are bad enough for dermatological intervention?
“Mild acne is very common and treatment might result in topical face wash or cream,” says Dr Uttam. “But if the acne is more severe with deep, painful cysts that may scar, you might want to see a doctor as early intervention is best to avoid disfigurement.”
The good news is that these days, the outlook for acne sufferers is positive, with new medications on the market such as Roaccutane and topical treatment.
If you’re feeling blue about your face, the key thing, says Dr Uttam, is to get a professional to look at it.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed about; go and see a dermatologist. There could be an underlying reason, and you need to find that out.”
With year-round sun and beautiful beaches to tempt us into a spot of sunbathing, skin cancer is a definite risk we all need to make sure we’re aware of.
“There is no standardised data about the Middle East for skin cancer rates, but we do have a mixed population here and people are exposed to sun a lot, so the risk is definitely there,” Dr Uttam says.
“You need to self-check your skin,” he emphasises. “Remember that you’re the only one looking at it, so you need to keep an eye on any changes. Any new spots that are rapidly growing or changing, or have become itchy, inflamed or painful, or a rash – these are the things you need to be aware of.”
If you do find something – even if it’s been there a while – Dr Uttam recommends getting it checked out. It could just save your life.
“Some pre-cancerous skin conditions, such as solar keratosis, occur due to skin exposure,” he advises. “They present as rough brownish scales, and many people don’t bother with getting these treated, but they can turn into cancer.
“Bowen’s disease is another pre-cancerous condition that can be treated. It looks like a rough skin patch, but unlike eczema, it won’t go away and returns periodically.”
To know what to look for in terms of your skin, Dr Uttam advises keeping the ABCDE rule in mind – asymmetry, border, colour, diameter and evolution – particularly with regard to moles, as well as keeping an eye on any sores that won’t heal or strange-coloured bumps, which could be a sign of less common types of skin cancer.
Cancerous moles may have an irregular shape, colour or borders, and they may grow quickly. But if you do end up with a cancer diagnosis, it might not be a death sentence, Dr Uttam says – as long as you’re reactive to any changes.
“Moles and resulting melanoma is the more dangerous [skin] cancer,” he notes. “If you ignore any moles that have changed, they may metastasise (spread) to other parts of the body and become more difficult to treat.
“But if you catch melanoma early and remove it, you have a much better chance of treating it,” he adds. “That’s why you need to check, and you need to see a doctor if you notice anything.”
Save your skin
Knowing your ABCDEs is crucial to your skin health and could save your life. Here’s what they all mean…
- Asymmetry: Generally speaking, moles are symmetrical so if one half is not the same as the other, this can be a sign of melanoma.
- Borders: A benign mole has smooth, even borders, whereas early signs of melanoma tend to present with uneven, poorly defined edges.
- Colour: Most moles are one colour, so if you see variations in tone including brown, tan, black or even red, white or blue, see a doctor.
- Diameter: Malignant moles are usually bigger than 6mm in diameter.
- Evolving: If you notice any changes over time, including itching, bleeding or growth, see a doctor.
WORDS Camille Hogg