“People see it and think it’s contagious, so they’re afraid to get close to you.”

Suzanna Woodhead
Chapter 1
A Misdiagnosis

Everything started when I came down with a sore throat in my mid 20s, at the time I was living in Colorado. I went to the doctor, and they swabbed my throat. A week or so later, there was a message on my answering machine with the results: I had strep throat, and they wanted me to come back into the doctor’s office.

But by this time, something else was happening. I had suddenly developed these patches of sores all over my body. So when I went in to see the doctor about my throat, they saw these patches and thought I had scarlet fever. They actually quarantined in the emergency room.

But the test for scarlet fever came back negative. That’s when I started thinking: Could these skin patches be psoriasis? Both my brother and my cousin had it, and I always suspected my dad had it too. So to me, psoriasis would make sense. But the doctors blamed it on the strep throat, saying it was some sort of related inflammatory disease.

But even after the strep went away, the patches remained. They were all over my body — the only part not covered was my face. I went without treatment for months because the doctors kept saying it was from the strep. They told me there was nothing they could do.

Meanwhile, I was living in San Antonio, Texas, a place where you wear shorts for most of the year. When I was walking around in public, people would see my legs covered in these patches. Little kids would say things to their moms, like, “What’s wrong with that lady?” It was very difficult.

Chapter 2
A Push for Real Answers

I was pretty confident that the patches were psoriasis, but I still didn’t have an official diagnosis and no one else seemed to agree with me. I remember one of the doctors I visited said, "It's not on your elbows and your knees, so it can’t be not psoriasis."

My symptoms at that time were on my arms and legs, but not the elbows or knees specifically. But I said to him, "I don't think psoriasis has to be on your elbows and knees."

I just kept thinking — my brother and cousin both have it, and that makes me high risk. So I didn’t give up, and I eventually went to see another doctor to get answers.

Sure enough, that doctor diagnosed me with psoriasis. They started me on a steroid cream treatment right away.

Years have passed, and that’s still the treatment I find works best for me. Sometimes it still flares up, like when I’m really stressed, and sometimes the patches are more stubborn. But for the most part, the cream really works. I moved to the East Coast a few years after my diagnosis, and I think being out of the drier climate of San Antonio might have helped my symptoms, too.

Chapter 3
Dealing With the Stigma

Living with psoriasis definitely comes with a stigma. I found that sometimes people were afraid to touch me. For instance, I would go to get a pedicure, and if the employee would see psoriasis patches on me, I would notice them go and glove up. But when I’d get a pedicure during a time when I wasn’t having a psoriasis flare, that wouldn’t happen. I think it’s just something a lot of people don’t understand. People see it and think it’s contagious, so they’re afraid to get close to you.

In those situations, I try to educate people. I’ll just say, “It’s OK — this is psoriasis. It’s hereditary and not contagious in any way.”

Most people respond well to that and are appreciative, and I can tell they are no longer afraid. But in some cases, I still wonder whether the person really believes me. There’s just something about skin diseases that gives people an “ick factor” they wouldn’t have toward other kinds of conditions.

My brother and my cousin have been some of my biggest supporters in dealing with psoriasis, because they know what it’s like. I also have great friends that have made me feel so much better about it. They’ll say, “I don’t even notice it. Don’t worry about it. You’re just fine.” I find that very supportive and comforting, especially in situations where I might be hesitant to go dancing or go to the beach or something. I’ve learned I don’t have to miss out on the fun because of my psoriasis.

Stressing about what you look like can keep you from doing things that you enjoy, and that puts even more stress in your life. And since psoriasis is often a stress-related condition, it's really important to focus on other things. In general, I think it's always good to remember that we never know what other people are going through and dealing with privately. So instead of worrying about how my skin looks, I try to focus on what is truly important.

Chapter 4
Lessons to Pass On

I have a job I love now, working with medical students. I started out as a standardized patient, which basically meant I was an actor playing the role of a person with a certain medical condition. The students would have to practice on me, “diagnosing” me and learning bedside manner and other skills. Now I teach medical students how to perform exams, how to use the equipment and locate the different organs and things like that. It’s very interesting work and a lot of fun, too.

In a way, having psoriasis has helped me in my job. I feel I can accurately convey to the students what it’s like to be a patient living with this kind of condition, and it’s a great learning point for them.

I also have four amazing children — twin boys and then two other sons. One of my sons has eczema, and I also had eczema before I had psoriasis. So I do worry that my son will also develop psoriasis. But I’m not as afraid of that possibility as you might think.

I hope that it doesn’t happen to him, of course, but I know from personal experience that psoriasis is not the worst thing that can happen to you. It’s something you can control, and it’s something you can live with. You can have a completely normal life. Would I prefer he doesn’t have it? Of course. But if he does, I have lots of advice to pass onto him. I know that, like me, he will be OK.