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Dermatology is a medical specialty devoted to the skin, hair and nails with two distinct areas of focus: Clinical dermatology, concerned with preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases and disorders; and Cosmetic dermatology, referring to treatments and procedures intended to restore or enhance a person's appearance. Physicians specializing in this area are usually called dermatologists or, more simply, skin doctors.
As the protective outer covering of the body, the skin is a natural and usually effective barrier to the threats of a sometimes hostile external environment; however it is still exposed and vulnerable to inflammation and harm from ultraviolet radiation, botanical and chemical allergens and irritants, infectious agents (bacteria, viruses, fungi), extreme temperatures and injury. The skin can also manifest signs of internal illnesses and conditions, almost as if they are bubbling up to the surface.
Rashes, moles, warts, pimples, spider veins, hair loss (or the opposite problem of excessive hair growth), skin or nail infection, scars and wrinkles are just a few of the many reasons a person may seek the help of a dermatologist. Skin doctors are trained to evaluate and diagnose the full scope of changes and abnormalities that can occur in the skin, hair and nails, whether the insult is from the outside or within. These specialists also have expertise in many types of treatment, including medical and surgical therapies such as the most appropriate topical and oral medications, but laser treatments, cryotherapy, and a host of surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures, too.
An important public health service dermatologists perform is to screen for skin cancer by examining patients for suspicious moles or growths that could be cancerous or precancerous. Even melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, can be curable if caught and treated early. Dermatologists are trained to recognize and distinguish among moles and other harmless growths, precancerous skin changes and cancers. If a tissue sample is needed to make a diagnosis, they perform skin biopsies that a pathologist will later review. Dermatologists can also treat skin cancer, depending on the type and extent. Mohs surgery -- a special type of procedure used solely for treating skin cancer -- is often performed by dermatologists with advanced training in the method.
Dermatologists also are skilled in diagnosing and treating the wide range of inflammatory conditions and infections that can affect the skin, scalp and nails. These include contact dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. Inflammation also plays a part in causing acne, one of the most common conditions a skin doctor sees. Dermatologic infections include warts, oral herpes, ringworm, athlete's foot, and Staphylococcal ("Staph") infections.
As an organ -- in fact, the largest organ of the body -- the skin can be affected by diseases that involve multiple body organs as an external manifestation of what may have started as an internal or systemic disease. Dermatologists play an important role in evaluating and treating these patients, too; examples include such diseases as lupus and scleroderma, which belong to a larger group of problems known as connective tissue disorders.
At the cosmetic end of the specialty, dermatologists can offer treatments to eliminate or minimize scars and birthmarks, fade abnormal dark patches on the face (called melasma) and spider veins on the legs, and remove tattoos. Many dermatologists also perform laser hair removal procedures, and some perform surgical procedures to treat hair loss.
Finally, some dermatologists focus their practices on cosmetic dermatology, offering an ever-growing list of treatments for improving appearance and reversing the signs of aging, such as laser skin resurfacing, collagen and other injections, dermabrasion, chemical peels, facelifts, eyelid surgery and liposuction.
For more information about dermatologists on the Medical Staff at The Chester County Hospital and Health System, call our Physician Referral Service at 610.738.2300 or visit the Find a Doctor section of our website.
Last Updated: 8/30/2013