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It may appear to be nothing more than a dry patch of skin, but when that patch becomes hard, thickens, becomes stiff, it could be scleroderma, a type of autoimmune disease. Understanding this disease is key to preventing damage to your skin and, potentially, your internal organs.
June is Scleroderma Awareness Month, and it is a good time to learn about the symptoms and treatments for this relatively common condition. Although there is no cure, scleroderma is readily controllable with proper treatment.
Scleroderma can affect anyone, but it is more common in adults, and specifically women. It cannot be spread from person to person or by coming into contact with a lesion on the skin.
Those who are affected by this disease will experience either a localized type or a systemic type. Localized scleroderma will generally impact only the skin, and only in certain areas, causing skin to become hard and tight. Using oil-based lotions and humidifiers can help with the dryness, as well as avoiding harsh soaps. Regular use of sunscreen is advised to protect the skin from excessive drying and potential scarring.
More mild forms of localized scleroderma can improve or go away without treatment, but in severe cases skin damage can result.
Systemic scleroderma can be more serious because it affects the whole body, including skin, blood vessels, and major organs, causing the tissues throughout the body to harden and thicken. Symptoms can range from stiff and swollen joints to shortness of breath to weakening of the heart to kidney failure.
Doctors often will recommend stretching exercises or will refer patients to physical therapy to get relief from painful joins. It is important, however, to work with your doctor to monitor heart, lung and kidney function to avoid complications that can result from scleroderma.
People with systemic scleroderma often report Raynaud’s, a condition in which extremities—usually fingers or toes—become white and numb. Triggers for a Raynaud’s episode are often exposure to cold or anxiety, so it is important to work with your doctor to identify and avoid these triggers.
With careful monitoring, regular exercise and attention to your doctor’s recommendations, scleroderma can be controlled and symptoms kept at a minimum. If you believe you are suffering from scleroderma, talk to your doctor.