Kim Kardashian West's not necessarily the first person you think of when it comes to health icons, but she's still had one major impact on the health community: helping to normalize psoriasis.
Kardashian West has been extremely open about her psoriasis—which is actually a chronic autoimmune disease—and how it has affected her life. (She even helped formulate her KKW Beauty Body Makeup to cover up her symptoms.) But the tell-tale signs of psoriasis—raised red, white, or silvery patches on the skin—often make people wonder: Is psoriasis contagious?
The quick answer? No. Psoriasis, which affects up to 7.5 million people in the United States, may look like a contagious rash, but isn't the least bit transmissible—that means it can't be spread by any type of contact (skin-to-skin, exchanged bodily fluids, etc), says Geoffrey Potts, MD, a dermatologist at Detroit Receiving Hospital in Detroit, Michigan.
That's because, while psoriasis typically manifests on the surface of the skin, it's not caused by anything you can come into contact with (like bacteria). Instead, "Psoriasis is caused by internal inflammation, and this is what prompts the flakes and scales of psoriasis,” Dr. Potts says. “When you have psoriasis, your immune system prompts skin cells to grow fast. These overproduced skin cells then form thick scales which affect the skin and sometimes the joints as well.”
Something to keep in mind: While researchers are still searching for the exact answer to what causes psoriasis, experts believe that there’s a genetic component to the disease (which explains why Kardashian West's mom, Kris Jenner, also has the condition).
So who can get psoriasis, and why?
“Psoriasis is what’s called a multifactorial trait—this means that we inherit genes which confer risk for, or protection from, psoriasis from each of our parents, which gives us a relative predisposition to develop psoriasis,” says Keith Choate, MD, a Yale Medicine dermatologist in New Haven, Connecticut. Basically, your parents pass it down to you.
But even if you have the gene, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll develop psoriasis—it has to then be set off by an environmental trigger. "A person’s genetic likelihood plus his or exposure to an environmental trigger ultimately determines when and if that person will develop psoriasis," says Dr. Choate.
Stress, medications, and even certain infections (like strep throat) can trigger psoriasis and lead to inflamed skin in susceptible individuals, he explains. Likewise, medications like lithium (for mood disorders) and beta blockers (for high blood pressure) can set off or worsen psoriasis flares.
So if you were previously worried about "catching" psoriasis, consider this a plea to stop. Instead, help educate others who still (wrongly) believe the skin condition is contagious in order to help end the stigma.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Dr. Potts was affiliated with the incorrect hospital. He is affiliated with Detroit Receiving Hospital. We regret this error.