5 Ways Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects Your Skin

By

Paige Greenfield

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What RA Does to the Hands and Wrists

Inflammation from RA can make it difficult to use your hands.
Itchy skin

When you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you know it causes inflammation and pain in your joints. However, you may be surprised to notice that RA can affect other parts of your body, such as your skin. In some instances, the skin symptoms are due to RA itself. In others, drugs you take to control RA may lead to skin issues. Here are five RA-related issues that may appear.

1. Raynaud’s Phenomenon

In Raynaud’s phenomenon, the blood vessels that send blood to your fingers and toes constrict. This can occur because of cold temperatures or stress. Symptoms related to Raynaud’s that can affect your skin include:

  • Fingers and/or toes turning white or blue

  • Feelings of coldness, pain, and numbness

  • Throbbing, tingling, or warmth when the blood returns

  • Slow-healing sores, called ulcers, on your fingertips

Be sure to dress appropriately in cold weather. Though it sounds extreme, you also may want to consider wearing gloves when shopping in the refrigerator and freezer aisles of the grocery store.

2. Rheumatoid Nodules

About 50% of people with RA also get rheumatoid nodules. These are lumps of tissue that develop under the skin. They often form over bony areas like your fingers or elbows. Sometimes, nodules go away without treatment. A class of drugs called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) used to treat RA can help nodules disappear as well.

3. Bruising

Corticosteroid medications help control inflammation caused by RA. These drugs can also cause thinning of the skin and make you more vulnerable to bruising.

4. Red Dots

RA can sometimes cause a condition called vasculitis, or inflammation of blood vessels that feed the skin. A telltale sign of vasculitis is red dots (medical term "petechiae"). In extreme cases, you could see ulcers on the legs, under the fingernails, or in nail beds. If you notice any of these symptoms, tell your doctor right away. You may need immediate treatment.

5. Sun Sensitivity

One of the medications to treat RA, methotrexate, a DMARD, can increase your sensitivity to the sun. Some people who take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may also be more sensitive to sunlight. Be sure to practice sun safety, which includes wearing sunblock with SPF 30 or above that also protects against UVA and UVB light. Reapply every 90 minutes.

Key Takeaways

  • RA can affect your skin, either because of the disease itself or because of medications you take to treat it. 

  • In Raynaud’s phenomenon, the blood vessels that send blood to your fingers and toes constrict as a result of cold temperatures or stress.

  • About 50% of people with RA get rheumatoid nodules, lumps of tissue that develop under the skin.

  • RA can sometimes cause vasculitis, or inflammation of blood vessels that feed the skin. A telltale sign is red dots.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jul 4, 2015

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Medical References

  1. Raynaud's Phenomenon. Arthritis Foundation. http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/raynauds-phenomenon/
  2. Autoimmune Disorders and the Importance of Safe Sun Protection. Arthritis Foundation. http://blog.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/sun-protection-autoimmune-disorders/
  3. More Than Just Joints: How Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects the Rest of Your Body. Arthritis Foundation. http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/rheumatoid-arthritis/articles/rhemuatoid-arthritis-af....

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