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A dermatologist is a doctor who has been specially trained to diagnose, treat and help prevent skin problems of all kinds. Your skin is the largest organ in your body, with a total surface area of about 20 feet for the average adult. As the external layer of your body, it’s exposed to damage and irritation almost constantly.
Since your skin is the first line of defense against injury and bacteria, it often reflects the overall health of your body. Dermatologists are among the most commonly visited specialists, with an estimated 43 percent of people referred to a dermatologist at some point in their lives by their primary care physicians.
Dermatologists treat a wide range of diseases that affect your skin, hair, nails and mucous membranes. They can even treat a variety of sexually transmitted diseases. Often, your dermatologist has an area of even more specialized training, such as venereology, which focuses on diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, or phlebology, which concentrates on problems with your veins (as in varicose veins).
There are many medical conditions and diseases that your dermatologist is an expert at treating. These include:
- Acne: The most common skin disorder in the U.S., acne has a number of possible underlying causes.
- Warts: Caused by a virus that infects the top layer of your skin, warts often go away without treatment. But your dermatologist can remove them more quickly.
- Skin cancers: One in five Americans will develop some form of skin cancer, most commonly melanoma, carcinoma, or squamous cell.
- Nail problems: Often, problems with your fingernails or toenails can indicate other underlying physical conditions.
- Dermatitis and Eczema: These conditions involve inflammation of your skin.
- Fungal infections: These infections are usually mild, but in some cases, they can lead to systemic problems for people with weakened immune systems.
- Hair disorders: Most commonly, this refers to alopecia or hereditary hair loss.
- Vitiglio: This is a condition that occurs when your skin loses melanin and turns lighter in patches.
- Rosacea: Most often appearing on your face, the symptoms of rosacea are redness, small bumps and visible blood vessels on your nose and cheeks.
- Psoriasis: This disease is a chronic, autoimmune skin disorder that causes overgrowth of skin cells, making your skin thick and red, sometimes with silvery scales.
- Shingles: This is a viral infection from the virus herpes zoster that affects the nerve endings of your skin, causing a very painful rash.
Your internist or general practitioner may refer you to a dermatologist for any number of reasons. For example, you may need specialized care for a skin condition your family doctor finds during an exam. A dermatologist has the best knowledge and tools to treat your condition with a method that works best for you.
Wide Range of Treatments
Your dermatologist has a wide array of diagnostic and treatment tools at hand to treat your skin problem. Depending on your needs, your dermatologist may use a laser treatment, a surgical procedure or another technique. The range of treatment options include:
- Systemic medication: This option includes the use of antibiotics or steroids, delivered by pill or injection, to treat conditions like severe acne.
- Topical medication: These creams or lotions alleviate your symptoms and improve your appearance.
- Immunotheraphy: This treatment helps your immune system repair itself to better fight your skin condition.
- Radiotherapy: This focused therapy uses ionizing radiation to kill cancer cells.
- Photodynamic therapy: This cancer treatment uses photosensitizing drugs and UV light.
- Treatment of photoaged skin: This option treats skin that’s been aged by prolonged exposure to the sun.
- Skin maintenance: This treatment involves the prevention and care for normal skin.
- Cancer screening: This is the prevention of skin cancers and other diseases through a skin care routine.
Your dermatologist also may perform other procedures, such as liposuction, hair transplants, and tissue augmentation therapy. These are considered cosmetic surgeries, and while you can visit a plastic surgeon, you’ll benefit from going to a dermatologist who specializes in these procedures.
When to See a Dermatologist
You should schedule an appointment with a dermatologist if your family practitioner refers you to one. When this happens, you may have an area of concern that your doctor wants you to get checked by a specialist. For example, you may have a mole or a freckle that needs to be checked for possible pre-cancerous growth. You should see a dermatologist if you have a persistent rash, or need a prescription treatment for acne or another chronic skin condition such as eczema.
Your local Manhattan dermatologist can make recommendations if you’re interested in cosmetic surgery, or you can be referred to another doctor specializing in that area. A dermatologist also can treat scars and any other skin-related issues. Dermatologists have extensive training in how your skin is affected by your overall health.
Education and Training
Dermatologists are medical or osteopathic doctors who’ve been certified by the American Board of Dermatology to treat diseases and conditions of the skin, nails and hair. Because they’re medical doctors, they’ve been through medical school and have chosen to specialize in treating skin conditions.
All dermatologists need three years of training after medical school, specifically for problems with the skin, hair and nails. There are other rigorous standards that dermatologists have to meet, including:
- One year of residency in internal medicine, general surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, family practice, pediatrics or emergency medicine
- A three-year accredited dermatology residency program, during which 75 percent of each year was spent caring directly for patients with skin problems either in outpatient or inpatient situations
- Passing rigorous exams to get board certification, which ensures that they’re qualified to practice dermatology on their own
- Retaking board exams every 10 years to make sure they’ve kept up on their education and training in the latest treatment techniques
During this training, your dermatologist studies different disciplines. Dermatologists can further specialize, too, to go into cosmetic surgery, for example, to perform liposuction, hair replacement and other body augmentation procedures. Other specialization options include becoming an expert in Mohs surgery, a form of skin cancer treatment. Both specializations require a fellowship that provides extensive training.