When Marlane Fairleigh noticed her face had acquired a permanent blush, she bought a drugstore product to treat allergies. But when blushing turned into red bumps that wouldn't go away, the 54-year-old small-business consultant sought out a dermatologist who diagnosed the problem right away: rosacea, an acne-like condition that strikes in middle age.
If you haven't heard of rosacea, you're not alone. The condition is often misdiagnosed or left untreated. But the occurrence of rosacea appears to be on the upswing and may hit one of three fair-skinned baby boomers between the ages of 30 and 50, according to the National Rosacea Society in Barrington, Ill., an information and physician referral organization (708 382-8971). Even Britain's Princess Diana, renowned for her flawless complexion, may be a sufferer. In a 1992 book, Royal Fashion and Beauty Secrets, author Ann Chubb cites "close observers" of Princess Di as saying they have noticed a "trend toward redness and breakouts normally associated with rosacea."
NO CURE. The condition can't be cured, but it can be controlled with oral antibiotics, such as tetracycline, and topical antibiotic creams prescribed by a dermatologist. If rosacea is left untreated, small red bumps resembling pimples will appear. In more advanced states, it can spread to the eyes, causing redness and a feeling of grittiness, and the nose may become swollen, red, and bumpy. Comedian W.C. Fields and financier J.P. Morgan are believed to have been two untreated sufferers.
The cause of rosacea is debated. Dr. Jerome Z. Litt, dermatology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, believes mites--which are always present on the skin--burrow into facial oil glands and proliferate. But other experts think a tendency toward rosacea is inherited. It occurs most frequently in those of Celtic descent.
One thing doctors agree on: Rosacea flares up when blood vessels near the skin's surface dilate for prolonged periods. A recent survey of 400 sufferers found sun exposure and stress the most common triggers. Others included heavy exercise, hot baths, caffeine, and menopause. For Fairleigh, who lives in Jacksonville, Miss., it's humid weather.
Rosacea is as emotionally disturbing as it is physically uncomfortable. Many sufferers report a lower sense of self-esteem, and some experience full-blown depression. Others fear the condition will be equated with the heavy drinking that is also associated with a ruddy complexion. "I have patients who say, `I can't go out looking like this,"' says Dr. Helen Torok, a dermatologist in Medina, Ohio. But in most cases, the redness can be brought under control in several weeks, she says, much to patients' relief.
WARNING SIGNS OF ROSACEA
-- Intermittent flushing or redness on cheeks, chin, nose, or forehead
-- Acne-like bumps and pimples,
dilated blood vessels
-- Bloodshot eyes, gritty feeling in eyes, small hard bumps on both eyelids
-- Red, bumpy, and swollen nose