The skin is the largest organ in the body, which means that there are a lot of things that can go wrong with it. While most skin conditions are easily treated with creams or other medications–as well as lifestyle changes such as a healthier diet and drinking more water–more complex skin diseases are harder to treat, and many have no known cure, affecting the sufferer for life.
As a matter of fact, 85 million Americans have suffered from some sort of skin disease–everything ranging from teenage acne to some of the weirder and not-so-wonderful conditions that are featured in the list below.
Acne is the most common skin condition, affecting 80% of teenagers and 60% of adults, closely followed by eczema, which usually affects younger children but can, in some cases, continue into adulthood. The truth is, skin conditions aren’t just unsightly, and many can be painful and deadly. Skin cancer, for example, can be fatal, although the five-year survival rate for people whose cancer is found and treated before it spreads to the lymph nodes is 98%. Worse, still, is what happens to your skin once the cancer advances.
Now, if you thought that skin cancer was the only disturbing thing that your skin could suffer from, then check out the list below of some of the most disturbing, but thankfully rare, skin conditions that have affected people.
Argyria is an unusual condition caused by overexposure to silver salts. These silver salts build up in the skin, staining it a bluish-grey color, and you can’t simply wash yourself clean either. Exposure is usually either through working in silver mining, which is quite a niche line of work, or by taking specialist dietary supplements which contain silver salts, often aimed at those who have cancer or AIDS and which build up in the body from within. Once the coloring has appeared on the skin, it is there for life even if the sufferer stops any and all contact with the initial source of the silver salts. Just like hypertrichosis, past sufferers of argyria also often enjoyed lucrative careers in Victorian freak shows.
14 Blaschko’s Lines
Everyone actually has Blaschko’s Lines, which were named after the German dermatologist, Alfred Blaschko, who is the person who discovered them. They are invisible lines which trace around the surface of our bodies in distinct patterns. In some people, congenital or genetic conditions mean that these normally unseen lines become visible, appearing like a rash of discolored stripes across the skin. These stripes are shaped like an S over the abdomen, like a V over the lower spine, and like a U from the breast to the arm. There is no cure for Blaschko’s Lines, and sufferers will have to put up with the unusually-shaped rashes for their whole life.
13 Epidermolysis Bullosa
Epidermylosis Bullosa is the umbrella term for a group of genetic conditions which cause the skin of the sufferer to blister and break at the slightest touch. Those with EB often suffer very painful open wounds, and the skin is so delicate that it is difficult to heal. In severe cases, the internal organs can even be affected by the same condition, which can lead to severe complications. Only about 500,000 people in the world suffer from the three types of EB–EB Simplex, Dystrophic EB, and Junctional EB–and there is no known cure for the condition. The only support doctors and medical staff can provide is to help heal wounds caused by the disease and to try and prevent permanent scarring.
Elephantiasis is caused by an infection, most often a parasitic infection, but it can also be caused by s*xually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, and even exposure to some environmental factors. The swelling in the limbs that typifies cases of elephantiasis is caused by an obstruction in the lymphatic system, which in turn causes a build-up of lymphatic fluid in the extremities. Sufferers also develop thickened skin in the affected areas, which takes on a pitted or pebbly appearance, and they often feel very ill into the bargain. Elephantiasis is treated by tackling the underlying infection or disease, which then allows the trapped lymphatic fluid to drain away, reducing the swelling.
When you hear the word leprosy, most people’s first thoughts are probably of the bible story in which Jesus healed the lepers. The reason this had such an effect on people is that, for centuries, people thought this disfiguring condition was highly contagious–meaning that lepers would often be socially isolated–whereas it is actually only caught if you have extremely close contact with someone who has been infected. The condition causes nerve damage and a loss of sensation in the extremities, especially the hands and feet, as well as sores on the skin. Leprosy has been all but eradicated in the western world, although about 180,000 people worldwide are still affected by the disease every year.
10 Necrotizing Fasciitis
Of all the disturbing skin conditions out there, the one you probably least want to be diagnosed with is necrotizing fasciitis. It is a bacterial infection which affects the tissue just under the skin and can spread to the internal organs if its progress isn’t halted. It is sometimes called the flesh-eating disease, which isn’t quite accurate. What actually happens is that the bacteria that cause necrotizing fasciitis release toxins that destroy the body’s tissue. This disease progresses terrifyingly quickly and can be life-threatening if it isn’t dealt with quickly enough. Amazingly, you don’t even have to have suffered a serious injury to be affected by necrotizing fasciitis. This condition can start from the tiniest wound if it becomes infected.
Porphyria is actually the name given to a group of conditions that can affect either the skin or the nervous system. The disease which affects the skin is called cutaneous porphyria and results in blisters, increased hair growth, thickening of the skin, and severe pain but only after the skin has been exposed to sunlight, which is why the condition is sometimes nicknamed “vampire disease.” Both cutaneous porphyria and acute porphyria, which affect the nervous system, occur because the body has a problem with a key component of hemoglobin. This then results in a build-up of harmful chemicals in your system. There are no cures for either type of porphyria, although treatments that can reduce the severity of the symptoms are available.
8 Harlequin Ichthyosis
Harlequin ichthyosis is a genetic condition that manifests itself immediately after birth. Those affected are born with an unusually thick and hard skin, which creates diamond-like patterns all over the body. Hence, the harlequin name. This tougher skin limits sufferers’ ability to move their arms and legs and can even cause respiratory problems, as the thicker skin makes it more difficult for the affected babies to breathe. In the past, most babies born with the disease didn’t live much longer than a few months. Thankfully, with new developments in medical treatments for the symptoms of the condition, people with harlequin ichthyosis can now live into childhood and even into adolescence.
7 Cornu Cutaneum
This is the Latin name for a condition which is more commonly known as cutaneous horns. The disease is characterized by the appearance of horn-like tumors on the surface of the skin. While they often look like animal horns, in some even rarer cases, the tumors can look like wood or even coral. The tumors are usually benign and are most commonly found on older people who have had a lot of exposure to sunlight during their lives. Removal is easy because the tumors are made of keratin, the same substance which makes up our hair and nails. They have no nerve endings and can be sliced off without an anaesthetic, although the sufferer will usually also require radiotherapy or chemotherapy to make sure that the tumor does not recur.
Werewolves may be the stuff of legends but you could be forgiven for thinking that they were very, very real if you happened to meet someone with hypertrichosis, a condition that causes thick hair to grow over the body and face of the sufferer. It is extremely rare, and there have only been 50 cases ever documented, although more women have suffered from a milder version of the condition in which they have thick, dark hair on their arms, legs, and faces. Sadly, there is no way of curing the condition or stop the excess hair from growing. Those with the condition therefore simply have to keep removing the hair if they choose to do so by normal methods like shaving and waxing. But these all cause further skin irritation if they are employed long-term.
5 Cancrum Oris
Cancrum Oris or Noma is a disease that only affects children with 80% of those affected under the age of ten. The faces of children with this condition start to rot away, especially around the mouth, which causes further problems with oral health and the ability of the patient to eat and drink adequately. Only around 100,000 children are affected every year, but doctors haven’t yet established why Noma affects certain children and not others. Factors linked to the condition include malnutrition, poor sanitation, and diseases like measles, typhoid, and dysentery. The only treatment is antibiotics, although even with modern medical interventions, Cancrum Oris still has a high death rate with more than 70% of people dying from the disease.
Dermatographia is a very unusual condition, which is also known as skin writing. If you suffer from dermatographia, the slightest scratch or scrape on the skin swells up into red lines, like an allergic reaction or hives. Usually, these marks simply disappear or at least fade away after a short while, although some people choose to take allergy medication if they find the condition interfering with their everyday lives or they are upset by the reaction to their appearance. No one really knows why people suffer from dermatographia, although it can often be triggered by stress, some infections, and even courses of antibiotics prescribed for unrelated conditions.
Gangrene is not a genetic condition, but one that is very much a product of circumstances. In the event of injury, infection, or condition affecting the blood supply to the limbs, the tissue in those limbs–skin, muscle, and even bone–can begin to rot away. This rot will spread throughout the affected area, unless the gangrene is treated. Treatment involves surgery to remove the dead tissue, antibiotics to treat the infection, and, in some cases, further surgery to try and restore circulation to the affected area. Sometimes, the damage done by the gangrene is so bad that the limb has to be amputated. But gladly, in modern medicine, this is very much seen as a last resort.
2 Lamellar Ichthyosis
Children born with the condition lamellar ichthyosis have a sheath of tight, clear skin covering their whole body at first. This first thin layer peels off within the first few weeks, at which point it becomes clear that the babies have tough scaly skin, including lips and eyelids that turn outwards rather than in. This condition leads to lots of other health problems, including infections, abnormal toe and finger nails, as well as hair loss. There is no cure, as such, for the disease, although medicated lotions, creams, and moisturizers can help to alleviate the worst of the symptoms. Only 1 in 100,000 people in the US are affected by this condition, although it is more common in other parts of the world, such as Norway.
1 Epidermodysplasia Verruciformis
Epidermodysplasia verruciformis, or EV for short, is a rare disease that is caused by infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV), a group of viruses that are responsible for a number of skin conditions throughout the body. However, people with EV have an unusual reaction to infection with HPV. They develop huge and often unsightly warts all over their bodies. While this is unpleasant for those with the condition, it can also be a further health risk, as these warts and lesions are more likely to develop into skin cancers than ordinary skin cells, meaning that people with EV need to monitor changes in their skin very closely. There is no cure for the condition, but the warts can be surgically removed if the patient chooses.