Health - Conditions
By: - at August 8, 2013

Top 15 Most Disturbing Skin Conditions

Do you think that your acne is the end of the world? A lot of people struggle with skin conditions that would blow a few red blotches right out of the water. Some skin conditions are life threatening, while others are just disgusting. That’s not to say a condition can’t be both, of course.

skin problems acne concept

Ranging from the utterly natural one nearly everyone has (Blaschko’s lines) to the horrifically creepy parasitic ones (bot flies and chigoe fleas), below is a look at 15 of the most disturbing skin conditions. Acne’s going to seem like nothing when you’re done with this list.

15)  Tiger (Blaschko’s Lines)
Blaschko’s lines are actually a skin condition we all have. They’re lines along which epidermal cells migrate in the fetus. Most of the time, however, they’re completely invisible. When they do show, there’s another disorder at the root of it. They show up as V-shaped markings along the back with the apex at the spine, S-shaped swirls on the abdomen, perpendicular lines along the back and front of the extremities, and a sort of inverted U-shape from the upper arm to the breast area. Scientists think they’re left over from the way epidermal cells move during embryonic and fetal development.

Woman With Blaschko's Lines
Woman With Blaschko's Lines

Most disorders that lead to the Blaschko’s lines showing are congenital. Usually if they’re going to show, they’ll show from birth, and doctors can determine then if they’re a negative or neutral thing for the baby. If it’s neutral, imagine how awesomely the kid can play it off in high school and beyond. Who doesn’t want to have tiger stripes? If you suddenly start seeing tiger-stripe marks on your body that aren’t from paint or tattoos, though, call your doctor. While we all technically have Blaschko’s lines, they’re not supposed to just magically appear in adulthood at random.  Something else might be seriously wrong with you. 

14)  Rot (Gangrene)
Put simply, gangrene is what happens when body tissues die from a bacterial infection or lack of blood flow. Put more disgustingly, it’s when body tissue starts to rot and eventually deteriorate. There are risk factors for gangrene, like any condition that damages blood vessels and affects blood flow – something like diabetes, for instance. You’ve probably heard of people with diabetes needing to be extra careful about injuries to their feet and toes. This is why. There are two kinds of gangrene: wet and dry. Wet gangrene involves swelling and pain, blisters or sores with bad-smelling pus, skin color changing (red, then brown, then black), fever and general unwell feelings, and – most disgustingly of all – a crackling sound when the infected area is pressed on.

Diabetic Wet Gangrene
Diabetic Wet Gangrene
By James Heilman, MD (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Dry gangrene, on the other hand, involves skin at the site being dry, shriveled, cold, numb, and turning from blue to black before sloughing off; it may or may not include pain. If you have any symptoms of gangrene, get seen immediately because gangrene can easily be fatal. Gangrene can be treated with antibiotics to bring it under control and surgery to remove dead tissue, or doctors might go to a treatment from much further back in medical history; maggots. The maggots used to treat gangrene are bred in a laboratory setting so they’re sterile – in other words, you don’t have to worry about infection compounding infection. They eat dead and infected tissue but leave healthy tissue alone entirely. They can speed healing and help combat the infection by releasing antibacterial substances.

13)  Paper Skin (Epidermolysis Bullosa)
Epidermolysis bullosa is a set of skin conditions that are usually inherited. It involves blisters forming in reaction to heat, minor injury, or friction from things like adhesives, rubbing, and scratching. There are four main types with several subtypes. Most affect infants and young children, but some of the more minor ones might not make themselves known until adolescence or even early adulthood. Fortunately, the mild ones usually improve with age. Unfortunately, the severe ones can cause major complications and can even be fatal. There is no cure and treatment focuses more on pain and wound prevention, infection treatment, treating the serious itching that happens with continuous injury healing.

Epidermolysis Bullosa Simplex
Epidermolysis Bullosa Simplex
By James Heilman, MD (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Think of how it feels when a shaving cut heals. Now imagine having that all the time, usually while you have other blisters (or, in the case of the example, shaving c

uts) forming constantly. Doesn’t sound terribly fun, does it? The complications patients with severe forms of epidermolysis bullosa face include secondary infections that can lead to sepsis, deformities like fusion of fingers or toes or abnormal joint bending and malnutrition if the blisters form in the mouth. Anemia can occur because of constant blood loss due to blisters, hoarse voice can form and worst of all, death.

12)  Elephant People (Elephantiasis)
Elephantiasis is horrific. It is caused by fluid building up in tissues, which leads to massive swelling, known as lymphedema. Most of the time because of a bite from an infected mosquito, a person gets infected with one of three specific kinds of roundworms. The roundworms, over time, block the lymphatic system. It can also be caused by sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, repeated streptococcal infections, an infectious disease called leishmaniasis, leprosy, or things like exposure to certain minerals, like silica. In some cases, there are no known causes. Regardless of the cause, the end result is the sufferer’s hugely swollen limbs, usually legs, and external genitals.

Man With Elephantiasis
Man With Elephantiasis

The skin also thickens and may turn grayish, comparable to an elephant’s leg. Usually, these occur in tropical and subtropical regions. Most governments in such regions are working to reduce and hopefully, eventually, eliminate it all together. Managing the disease is done through medication regimens (both antibiotics and antiparasitics) and awareness campaigns. The awareness campaigns work to spread news of ways to treat and avoid elephantiasis, which include soaking the affected body part or parts in an antiseptic solution (like bleach and water). Cleaning the affected regions thoroughly, consistently wearing shoes, and washing the feet and legs in soap and water are great ways to control the symptoms. For some people, wearing elastic bandages is an effective management technique.

11)  Biblical Ailments (Leprosy)
Leprosy is described in the Bible: “And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.” (Mark 1:40-42). Of course, at the time of the writing, the cause of leprosy – bacteria – was unknown. So was the fact that it can take up to 20 years post-infection for symptoms to appear.

Leprosy Deformities on Hands
Leprosy Deformities on Hands
By B.jehle (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It isn’t highly infectious, but rather it actually requires repeated close contact with leprosy infections or contact with droplets from the nose and mouth of an infected person. That’s probably the reason that people with leprosy were labeled “unclean” and cast out. Cast out so that they couldn’t easily infect their fellows. In modern times, there is a multi-drug therapy that’s generally prescribed to cure it, and early diagnosis and treatment is a consistent goal to eradicate it. Leprosy causes visible skin lesions, among other things. When left untreated, it can cause permanent damage to eyes, nerves, skin, and limbs. Body parts don’t fall off, as is generally depicted, though a secondary infection can cause further problems.

10)  Rotting More (Necrotizing Fasciitis)
Necrotizing fasciitis is better known as “flesh-eating bacteria.” When it occurs on the genitals, it’s called Fournier gangrene. It can destroy tissue – skin, fat, and muscle coverings – within a very short time. One in four people who get it will die from it, even though most people who get it are previously in good health. Fortunately, it’s very rare. Usually, necrotizing fasciitis happens when bacteria that cause other infections enter through an insect bite, a burn, a cut, or another wound. The bacteria may even normally cause minor infections.

Necrotizing Fasciitis on Leg
Necrotizing Fasciitis on Leg
By Piotr Smuszkiewicz, Iwona Trojanowska and Hanna Tomczak [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It usually can’t be passed from person to person, even in close contact, unless the person catching it already has a weak immune system. Necrotizing fasciitis often leads to gangrene (see #14 above). People should particularly watch cuts if they come into contact with ocean water or raw seafood, including cuts gained when cleaning crabs and lobsters. If a cut has much more pain than it should for its size or the pain decreases over a day to day and a half before suddenly increasing, call a doctor right away.

9)  Vampires (Porphyria)
Porphyria is a group of disorders that affect the nervous system, skin, or both due to a buildup of porphyrins in the body. Usually, it’s an inherited mutation. Cutaneous (skin) porphyria symptoms include itching, erythema (painful skin redness), edema (swelling), blisters, and red urine. These are due to hypersensitivity to light caused by the buildup of porphyrins. Porphyrins are natural compounds, including heme (the pigment in red blood cells and a cofactor of hemoglobin). Usually, they’re deeply colored. You might have heard of porphyria from an early "CSI" TV show episode.

Man With Porphyria
Man With Porphyria

It involved a doctor training her Great Dane to attack joggers so she could harvest and eat their organs to treat her acute intermittent porphyria. Unfortunately for the doctor, that’s not exactly the best way to treat it. Porphyria in the real world is treated by stopping any triggering medications, controlling pain, treating other diseases that may have triggered it, IV glucose and fluids, and injected medications that are forms of heme. so there’s less need for porphyrin in the blood. It may also involve drawing certain amounts of blood, malaria medications, and beta carotene in the cutaneous version.

8)  Harlequin Babies (Harlequin Ichthyosis)
Harlequin ichthyosis is the worst form of congenital ichthyosis. It involves a thickening of the keratin, or fibrous structural protein, layer of fetal skin. Infants with this condition are born with thick, very hard skin that forms diamond-shaped plates separated by fissures. It affects the shape of all facial structures, including the ears, mouth, nose, and eyelids as well as restricting movement. The restriction can lead to breathing difficulties and even respiratory failure. Because the skin can’t do its job of maintaining a protective barrier between the body and the outside world, infants can’t control water loss, fight infections, or properly regulate their body temperatures.

Harlequin Baby
Harlequin Baby

Harlequin infants frequently experience dehydration and develop life-threatening infections. Now that medicine has improved, people with harlequin ichthyosis are more likely to survive into childhood and adolescence. Those who do survive will need to take medication for the rest of their lives. The oldest known survivor was born in 1984. Fortunately, not very many babies will have to face the pain of harlequin ichthyosis; it’s very rare. Since it’s an autosomal recessive condition, it theoretically runs in families but may in practice never have shown up before. It’s unlikely that siblings will both have it.

7)  Horns (Cornu Cutaneum)
Cornu cutaneum are skin tumors made of keratin that have the appearance of horns. Sometimes, the tumors may look more like wood or coral. They may come from benign, premalignant, or malignant skin lesions. There were eleven cases, eight men and three women, with a median age of fifty-seven. Two of the horns arose from squamous cell carcinomas and a third from basal cell carcinoma, with the other eight benign. This is all pretty common.

Cornu Cutaneum Located on Ear
Cornu Cutaneum Located on Ear
By Jojo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Up to about 20 percent of horns grow out of malignant lesions, though the likelihood of malignancy (specifically, squamous cell carcinoma) increases to 33 percent when the horn is on the penis. (Go ahead and make your jokes, we’ll wait.) Good indicators of malignancy are greater size and tenderness at the base of the horn. Usually, they grow from sun-exposed skin. Most horns occur in people from 60s to mid-70s. The likelihood of a malignancy increases once the person is over 70 years old. While some sources say horns are more common in men, no sex difference has consistently been found.

6)  Werewolves (Hypertrichosis)

Fedor Jeftichew:

Hypertrichosis was better known in the past centuries than it is today. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when people would routinely be “freaks” in sideshows. People with hypertrichosis would be displayed as “bearded ladies” and “werewolves”. Two specific cases involved Stephan Bibrowski (“Lionel the Lion-Faced Man) and Julia Pastrana (advertised as a hybrid between an ape and a human or as a “Bear Woman”; she also had a gum and tooth malformation). There are, in fact, several forms of hypertrichosis. One thing they all have in common is that they are characterized by excessive hair growth beyond what is considered normal for the person’s age, sex, and race. It can be either congenital or acquired. Out of the four congenital kinds, the one usually associated with “wolf men” or “werewolves” in traveling circuses was congenital hypertrichosis terminalis. This is where fully pigmented terminal hair (the body hair people grow after puberty) grows across the body. Since it’s usually associated with gingival hyperplasia (gum and tooth defects), this is likely what Julia Pastrana had. Then there’s the much less common congenital hypertrichosis lanugosina, which has only had about 50 known cases worldwide since the Middle Ages. A child is covered with lanugo hair at birth. Usually, lanugo hair is shed at eight months’ gestation, but people with congenital hypertrichosis lanugosina have lanugo hair – very fine, silky, unpigmented hair – covering their bodies for their entire lives. This is most likely what Stephan Bibrowski had.

5)  Blue Men (Argyria)
Argyria is one of the skin disorders that will immediately get most sighted people’s attention. It turns a person’s skin blue and gives them a strange pygmy like appearance. Not bluish, not the blue of cold, but a dramatic, all-over, deep blue. It’s caused by exposure to silver compounds and silver dust. When generalized, there is no ignoring it. The most common cause is “mechanical impregnation of the skin”, or small bits of silver dust being driven into the skin of people who work in silver mining or refining; metal alloy. Sources include silverware, manufacturing; electroplating solutions, photographic processing, and metallic films on china and glass.

Normal Man and Man with Argyria
Normal Man and Man with Argyria
By Herbert L. Fred, MD and Hendrik A. van Dijk, via Wikimedia Commons

Another common cause is colloidal silver treatments, which are marketed worldwide for things ranging from AIDS to herpes. There have also been cases from prolonged use of eye drops containing silver salts, as well as silver salt compounds used to rinse out the nasal and urethral passages, to dress wounds, and long use of a smoking cessation remedy that contains silver acetate. It can even by caused by tattoos that are made using a silver amalgam or silver sutures for abdominal surgery. There is no one set dose or length of exposure that will cause argyria. Localized argyria appears much more commonly than does generalized argyria, but both are well known.

4)  Devil’s Smile (Cancrum Oris)
Cancrum oris, also called noma, is a well-known, devastating infectious disease. It’s a highly opportunistic disorder. A mix of bacteria work together to destroy the tissue of the face, particularly of the mouth and cheek. Unlike many infections, anatomic barriers, such as muscles don’t stop it. Compare that to necrotizing fasciitis (#10) above, where the bacteria stop at the muscle level. It usually affects children between the ages of two and sixteen, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. In many places, it’s not known at all. In sub-Saharan African communities it may appear as commonly as in seven in one thousand people.

Devil's Smile (Cancrum Oris)
Devil's Smile (Cancrum Oris)
By Brian L. Fisher, California Academy of Sciences. [CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Common risk factors in communities include poverty, malnutrition, poor oral hygiene, infectious diseases (particularly measles and herpes), and living with livestock in unsanitary conditions. Both infections and malnutrition weaken the immune system, which leave the body exposed to cancrum oris. It often stems from acute necrotizing gingivitis and oral herpetic ulcers. A group of microorganisms must be present for cancrum oris to occur. One of those bacteria creates three toxins and a substance that destroys blood cells. The mortality rate is from seventy to ninety percent without proper treatment.

3)  Writer’s Skin (Dermatographia)
Dermatographia, also known as skin writing, has no known cause. For people who have it, a light scratch will cause a welt that looks like a hive. Usually, each mark takes only about half an hour to disappear; however, for some people, it develops more slowly, lasting hours or even days. The actual condition may last for years. Its characteristic symptoms are itching, raised red lines, hive-like welts, and swelling. What causes dermatographia is unknown; the symptoms, particularly itching, can be brought on by minor things, like the label of a shirt rubbing at your skin.

Writer's Skin Dermatographia
Writer's Skin Dermatographia
By R1carver (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Dry skin and dermatitis, among others, can worsen it. Most often, dermatographia appears in teenagers and young adults. Those who have it (we hesitate to call them “sufferers”, especially compared with those who have some others on this list) should avoid harsh soaps and keep their skin moisturized. Since there is no known cause, there is similarly no known cure. Doctors will treat it symptomatically, so one patient might get different treatment than another.

2)  Tree People (Human Papillomavirus)

HPV Under Scanning Microscope:
Tree People (Human Papillomavirus)

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a fairly well-known sexually transmitted disease. In fact, it is the most common sexually-transmitted disease and currently vaccines are the biggest advancements used to combat it. The fact that it’s common doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Its effects can range from genital warts to certain cancers including cervical cancer. There are more than forty types of human papillomavirus, and they can have different effects on different people. There is no way of knowing who will or will now have health problems due to human papillomavirus. Since it’s abbreviated to HPV, some people might confuse it with herpes or HIV. It is very different from either of these other sexually transmitted diseases, other than being passed sexually. It’s passed through genital contact, usually vaginal or anal sex. People who get it often don’t realize they have HPV or that they might be passing something on.

A person might have HPV years after they last had sexual contact with an infected person, and a particularly unlucky person might have multiple types of HPV. The most common severe effect of HPV is cervical cancer, though it can cause other cancers (and its less-severe effects aren’t exactly good just because they aren’t cancer). HPV leads to cancer by causing cellular changes that then proliferate. It can take decades after HPV infection for cancer to appear. In rare cases, a woman can pass HPV to her baby during birth. There are tests for HPV, and there is a vaccine called Gardasil. It can protect men and women from the kinds of HPV that cause cancer and genital warts. Cervarix is a vaccine specifically for women that can protect against the kinds of HPV that cause cervical cancer.

1)  Bot Flies and Burrowing Fleas
Bot flies are a group of fly species whose larvae are internal parasites for mammals. Some of these are parasites within the gut, others are parasites that grow within the host’s flesh. There is one bot fly known to routinely lay its eggs in human flesh; creatively, it’s called the human bot fly. Its range is from Mexico to Paraguay and northeast Argentina.

Bot Fly Larva In Human Leg
Bot Fly Larva In Human Leg

The female human bot fly passes its eggs on to humans by capturing mosquitoes and other bloodsucking arthropods. It will then attach its eggs to them. The larvae will hatch while the mosquito or other pest is feeding (sensing the body temperature change that comes with a blood meal), and use the mosquito bite as an entry point. Fortunately, there are several home remedies to get rid of bot fly larvae without even needing to see a doctor. Just be sure to remove the entire larva, whichever method you use. If you don’t remove it, enjoy your roommate for the five to twelve weeks it lives with you.

Burrowing fleas, also known as sand fleas, chigoe fleas, or jiggers (among other names), also use humans as a host species. Both male and female fleas drink blood from mammal hosts. Only females actually burrow into the host. It burrows in headfirst and leaves only the other end of its abdomen exposed, which it uses to breathe. It takes about one to two weeks before it’s full of eggs.

Chigoe Flea Infestation
Chigoe Flea Infestation

When that happens, it sheds the eggs through the exposed end of its abdomen and dies. The dead flea is then naturally shed with the skin. About three or four days after the eggs hit the ground, they hatch. In two to three weeks, the whole beautiful cycle repeats. If you don’t want to wait for until the flea is naturally shed, there are both home treatments and those a doctor can perform. It may be a good idea to get a tetanus shot and a round of antibiotics.

Blaschko’s lines might not have seemed like much, once you got past thinking about the fact that your skin has lines you can’t even see. We’re betting that No. 1 on this list, the bot flies and burrowing fleas, is enough to give anyone more than a few unpleasant dreams, even if you’re already a dermatologist. Who wants to think about someone else living in their skin? Some of the others are horrific enough, but the idea of a creature living inside your skin with you just has that nicely extra-creepy finish. We hope you’re able to sleep well tonight.





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