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Skin Woes Affect U.S. Combat Troops

Posted: February 24, 2009

A recent report on how skin issues are affecting U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan highlights the need for continuous proper care.

Rashes, eczema and other common skin troubles can cause U.S. combat soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to be evacuated for treatment, a new report finds. In the history of warfare, skin diseases have been responsible for poor morale and combat ineffectiveness, the researchers noted in the February issue of the Archives of Dermatology. In fact, in tropical and subtropical areas, more than half of the days lost by front line units are due to skin diseases.

"Although skin diseases are rarely fatal, they have significant morbidity; thus they have an appreciable effect on combat medicine and operational primary care," said study author Dr. Timothy A. McGraw, from the U.S. government's Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and the Pentagon Air Force Flight Medicine Clinic. "This study evaluated a set of patients, all servicemen and women, who were evacuated from the war zones for ill-defined, non-traumatic skin conditions. The main outcome of the study was that dermatitis, benign melanocytic nevus [noncancerous moles], malignant neoplasms [skin cancers], urticaria [hives], and a group of nonspecific diagnoses were the most common post-evacuation diagnoses in our study population. These diagnoses are similar to the most common dermatologic diagnoses from 20th-century wars."

"This is an important paper," added Dr. R. Rox Anderson, a dermatology professor at the Harvard Medical School Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston. "There are a wide variety of skin problems, created or made worse by the conditions faced by soldiers. Prevention, proper diagnosis and treatment benefit the individual soldier and those who depend upon them."

The study shows the high frequency and wide range of skin conditions involved, from life-threatening lesions to conditions that wear soldiers down, increase their risk of infection or their ability to function well, leave permanent scarring, or are simply a nuisance, Anderson added. "The study suggests that thorough skin evaluation prior to deployments, early diagnosis, prevention and prompt care on site, and the availability of expertise by telemedicine technologies would make a difference," Anderson said.