What is scleroderma?

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Scleroderma: Overview

Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease that affects the skin and blood vessels. It can also affect organs such as the kidneys, heart, esophagus, and lungs.

Scleroderma causes the skin to harden and get tight. Your joints may get stiff and swollen. If this disease affects the organs, it is called systemic sclerosis and it can cause more serious problems. Scleroderma that affects your lungs may make it hard for you to breathe. You may have heart failure if scleroderma affects the blood vessels that lead from the heart to your lungs.

Scleroderma cannot be cured, but in some cases the condition may improve over time. Systemic sclerosis increases the risk of heart, kidney, and lung failure, which can lead to death. The type of treatment depends on whether the disease affects just your skin or other parts of your body. You will have a team of health professionals to help you. These may include a doctor, physical therapist, psychologist, dentist, and pharmacist. You will probably need medicines to treat symptoms and to prevent long-term problems.


Scleroderma is an uncommon disease in which parts of the skin and blood vessels break down and are replaced by fibrous tissue. Organ damage may also occur. This can lead to joint damage and lung, kidney, or heart failure and other life-threatening conditions. When scleroderma affects organs, it is called systemic sclerosis.

Symptoms of scleroderma can include thickening of the skin, joint pain and stiffness, problems swallowing, and cold fingertips that may turn white or blue (Raynaud's phenomenon). More serious symptoms may occur as the disease progresses and affects major organs.

What causes scleroderma isn't known. But it likely involves a problem with the immune system. There is no cure. But treatment can help relieve symptoms and prevent complications.

How can you care for yourself when you have scleroderma?

  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you have any problems with your medicine.
  • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • If you have trouble using your hands, ask your doctor or physical therapist about ways of doing things or devices that can help you. You can use Velcro instead of buttons on your clothes and get items such as hairbrushes with special handles.
  • Check your blood pressure every day. Call your doctor if it is higher than normal.
  • Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines. Get flu and pneumococcal vaccines. These vaccines can prevent lung infections.
  • Use sunscreen when you go outside in the summer to prevent skin damage.
  • Get regular exercise. This can help you stay strong and flexible.
  • Brush and floss your teeth every day. Get regular dental care to prevent serious dental problems.
  • Talk to your doctor if you have sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction or pain with intercourse.
  • Share your feelings. Stress and tension affect our emotions. By expressing your feelings to others, you may be able to understand and cope with them.
  • Join a support group. Talking about a problem with your partner, a good friend, or other people with similar problems is a valuable way to reduce tension and stress.
  • Get help if you need it. Discuss your concerns with your doctor, counselor, or other health professional.

What is scleroderma?

Scleroderma is a rare disease in which a person's immune system begins to change normal, healthy tissues. (This is called an autoimmune disease.) As a result, connective tissue of the skin, lungs, heart, and digestive tract is replaced with scar tissue. This change causes the tissues to become stiff and the muscles to not work as well.

Scleroderma: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have symptoms of a heart attack. These may include:
    • Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest.
    • Sweating.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • Nausea or vomiting.
    • Pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly or in one or both shoulders or arms.
    • Lightheadedness or sudden weakness.
    • A fast or irregular heartbeat.
    After you call 911, the operator may tell you to chew 1 adult-strength or 2 to 4 low-dose aspirin. Wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse trouble breathing.
  • Your blood pressure is higher than normal.
  • You have new or worse swelling in your legs.
  • You have new or worse fatigue.
  • You have new or worse trouble swallowing or problems with reflux.
  • You have swollen, red joints or non-healing wounds.
  • You feel depressed or no longer get pleasure from activities you used to enjoy.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You have new or worse symptoms that worry you.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.