First off, let's debunk a common misconception: psoriasis is not contagious. It is not something you can catch from other people.

But what is it, exactly? Psoriasis is a genetic autoimmune disease that affects the skin. Autoimmune means that your immune system mistakenly attacks your body—in this case your healthy skin cells.

Psoriasis causes raised, red, scaly plaques to appear on the skin—usually on the outside of the elbows, knees or scalp, but sometimes covering the entire body. The disease can be categorized as mild, moderate or severe.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, around 7.5 million people in the U.S. have psoriasis. While there is no cure for psoriasis, there are many effective treatments on the market.

"Today, one doesn't need to live with psoriasis, given the wide array of excellent treatments that are now available," says Dr. Andrew Blauvelt, a dermatologist and President of the Oregon Medical Research Center in Portland.

Causes and triggers

Doctors don't know what exactly causes psoriasis. They do know that it's an immune system disorder and that it's genetic. About one-third of people with psoriasis have at least one family member with the disease.

Many things can trigger psoriasis to begin or flare. While triggers vary from person to person, some of these triggers include stress, cold weather, infections, smoking, excessive drinking and certain medications.

Treatment options

According to Dr. Blauvelt, there are numerous effective psoriasis treatments now available, many which readily clear the skin with no side effects. Treatments range from topical creams and ointments to biologics, which are medications derived from living cells that target specific parts of the immune system that are involved in creating psoriasis.

As for the future, Blauvelt is hopeful that there will continue to be new drugs coming to the market in the next several years.

Fighting the stigma and taking action

Many people with psoriasis face stigma and discrimination in their daily lives.

"The general public doesn't understand psoriasis," says Blauvelt. "They fear that it's contagious, which it is not. Also, those with psoriasis often feel self-conscious and fear rejection."

One resource for patients is the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF), a nonprofit organization with a mission to find a cure and improve the lives of those affected. NPF offers free and confidential services, including one-on-one support.

Dr. Blauvelt also stresses that psoriasis should not be viewed as a cosmetic skin problem. This is because the inflammation from the skin can spill into the bloodstream and make people with psoriasis more likely to develop internal inflammation. In fact, psoriasis patients, especially those with more severe disease, are at higher risk for developing heart attacks and strokes compared to those without psoriasis. "It should be considered a health issue that you need to address as soon as possible," he says.

Your health plan can help

If you have a rash that you're concerned about, or if you have psoriasis and need help controlling symptoms, make an appointment with a dermatologist. To find one near you, sign in and use Find a Doctor.

Psoriasis treatments can be expensive. To help with costs, check out these tips for saving on prescription medications. It's also a good idea to get to know your drug coverage. To learn more about your specific coverage, sign in to view your pharmacy benefits.