By Katie Murdoch For The Herald
BOTHELL — Annie Herrera used to believe she had to hide having psoriasis.
Red blotches and flaky skin made for judgmental stares from adults and children and escalated to bullying from her peers. The 13-year-old wore long sleeves during the summer and became withdrawn and shy.
Now she’s feeling more comfortable in her own skin.
Herrera is a Youth Ambassador for the National Psoriasis Foundation. During the 2012 Walk to Cure Psoriasis in Seattle on Sunday, Herrera will participate in the 5-kilometer walk and speak to the crowd about psoriasis. She’s recruited relatives and friends to her team, Annie’s Crew, to participate.
While psoriasis isn’t contagious, raising awareness about the disorder can be, Herrera said.
“I just want people to learn what psoriasis is,” she said.
Psoriasis is an incurable autoimmune disease that appears on the skin. It’s a hereditary condition that occurs when the immune system sends out incorrect signals that increase how quickly skin cells grow.
Psoriasis is the most common autoimmune disease in the United States. About 7.5 million people have psoriasis, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation.
There are five types of psoriasis. The most common form, plaque psoriasis, appears as raised, red patches covered with a silvery white buildup of dead skin cells.
Her doctor connected Herrera with the foundation.
“I wanted to figure out something I could do with psoriasis,” she said.
Herrera deals with her psoriasis on a daily basis. She uses special moisturizers and topical ointments and goes to phototherapy treatments two to three times per week.
She immediately showers and moisturizes after swimming in pools as the chlorine irritates her skin. She and her mother, Cheryl, are mindful of which soaps, shampoos, detergents and household cleaning products to buy that won’t irritate her skin.
“In a week you can learn what you can’t be around,” Herrera said.
Her mother tries to remember her daughter has a lot more responsibility than most girls her age.
“At some point, I have to let go and remember she’s a 13-year-old kid and not everything can be about treatment,” Cheryl Herrera said.
The worst places she breaks out are on her eyes, arms, hands and knees.
“I have days where my skin is good and times where I can’t move without my skin breaking open,” she said.
Herrera has learned to ignore stares. “You pick your head up and walk away from it.”
Herrera credits her circle of friends who keep her from feeling down and together they make jokes and nicknames like “scaly fish.”
“It’s something you can laugh about,” she said. “There’s no time for ‘why me?’ I’m really lucky to have good friends who stand by me.”
Herrera started having problems when she was 2 years old and was misdiagnosed with eczema. About a year ago, her skin broke out into red, bleeding patches. She was sent to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland where a panel of doctors diagnosed her with psoriasis and gave her cyclosporine to curb her immune system to give her skin a chance to heal.
The treatment made Herrera highly vulnerable to sickness and infections. The pre-teen was pulled out of school and couldn’t hang out with friends and family to avoid getting sick. She was on the medicine for nine months. Earlier this year, Herrera’s doctor released her to attend school part-time. She attends two classes per day at Skyview Junior High School in the Northshore district and is home-schooled the rest of the week.
Researchers believe a combination of genes and external triggers cause psoriasis.
Common triggers include stress, injury, medications to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions, weather and food allergies.
In Herrera’s case, she is allergic to nickel, which means opening her locker at school or for volleyball practice irritates the palms of her hands. They shop for guitar strings that don’t have metal. Buying jewelry means checking labels for those that are hypoallergenic and nickel-free. One birthday, Herrera was touched when her friend had already coated the jewelry in clear nail polish to prevent Herrera’s skin from having an allergic reaction.
Herrera hid herself away and didn’t want stares, her mother said. Getting in touch with the foundation has helped her come out of her shell.
“Now she’s not hiding,” Cheryl Herrera said.
How to help
Donate to the National Psoriasis Foundation’s Walk to Cure Psoriasis in Seattle Sunday, through the Annie’s Crew team page at http://walk.psoriasis.org.