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The young woman who walked in for a consultation had a scarf wound around her neck. “I came to show you this,” she said, taking it off. There was a dark patch on the back of her neck with ridges and bumps, the skin raised and velvety. “I have already tried fairness creams,” she said. “They only make it worse.”
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The diagnosis was easy. She had a peculiar skin lesion known as acanthosis nigricans.
The cosmetically disfiguring and aesthetically displeasing lesions usually occur on the neck (where they are clearly visible), armpit, groin, knees or elbows, in short areas with skin folds. Very rarely, it can be found on the fingers or around the lips or in the nipple area. It can occur at any age and in both men and women. It is seen in children and even in babies. The lesions appear gradually and do not itch or pain. This means that they remain unnoticed until they have spread over a large area. Initially it looks like dirt so people try to scrub it off, damaging the skin in the process. Others try to camouflage it unsuccessfully with talcum powder and make up.
Nearly 20 per cent of the population has acanthosis nigricans and the numbers are rising rapidly because obesity is the commonest risk factor. More and more people are becoming overweight in India and the world.
An inactive lifestyle causes weight gain and these two factors together cause relative insulin resistance, which results in elevated glucose levels, an abnormal lipid profile and high blood pressure. These changes are grouped together as the “metabolic syndrome X”. Acanthosis nigricans is one of the early markers of this syndrome. The American diabetic association classified it as a risk factor for the development of diabetes in 2000. In children and adolescents, symptoms of syndrome X or frank diabetes begin to appear within two years of the appearance of acanthosis nigricans.
The disease can also be hereditary and in typical inherited acanthosis nigricans, skin lesions are confined to one half of the body. They spread and increase till a certain age and then remain stationery or regress. In other families the lesions, though present in almost all family members, are not really hereditary. The biggest difference is that they are present on both sides of the body. The family usually has an inactive lifestyle, members are obese and go on to develop diabetes.
Medications can also cause these skin changes as a side effect. The most common offenders are hormones — like oral contraceptive pills (OCP), hormone replacement therapy (HRT), insulin, pituitary extract, growth hormone or systemic corticosteroids. Unfortunately, pituitary extract or steroids may be added to unregulated “natural herbal supplements” or “tonics” so the person may not even know that he or she is ingesting such substances. Sulpha drugs (antibiotic)and nicotinic acid (for high cholesterol) can also cause these.
Certain types of acanthosis nigricans are peculiar to women. It is associated with the polycystic ovary syndrome and appears at adolescence. Such girls are obese and have irregular periods and facial hair.
If you develop acanthosis nigricans, it is worthwhile consulting a physician. Although you may be obese, and that is the commonest cause of these skin changes, some investigations and tests need to be done. This is because the skin changes can (though this is rare) be associated with cancer, particularly in the abdomen. It can appear before any other obvious sign of a tumour. It can also be a part of the spectrum of autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus erythematosus, scleroderma, Sjögren syndrome, or Hashimoto thyroiditis.
There really is no specific treatment for the skin changes in acanthosis nigricans. The disease itself is harmless. The main danger lies in the complications associated with obesity and insulin resistance. Tackling the underlying problem makes the skin lesions fade. Here is what you can do to tackle it:
• If it is due to medication or health supplements, stop taking them.
• Reduce your weight with diet and exercise. Try to reach your ideal body weight (height in meter squared multiplied by 23).
• Eat more protein, fresh fruits and vegetables. Starches and sugars provide empty calories and aggravate insulin resistance.
• Sweat trapped in the folds can make the lesions malodorous. Bathe twice a day with a medicated soap like Neko if that is the case.
• Evening primrose oil or fish oil supplements may help.
• Some prescription creams or lotions help lighten the affected areas. These contain modified vitamin A products and are often prescribed for acne.
• Fairness creams do not help.
• Surgical dermal abrasion can be done.
Source: The Telegraph ( Kolkata, India)
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