The word eczema comes from the Greek word ekzein which means “to boil out.” It is one of the most common skin conditions you can have, with one in five children and one in twenty adults having the condition. It’s itchy and unsightly, can ruin sleep, and cause infection. But you don’t have to put up with eczema, as there’s plenty you can do to ease your symptoms.
What is eczema?
This inflammatory skin condition triggers dry, itchy skin. Also known as dermatitis, eczema affects five million people in the UK each year. You can get eczema symptoms at any age, although it’s more common in children. Most grow out of it, although they may continue to have dry skin or be prone to further attacks in later life.
The most common type of eczema is atopic dermatitis but there are many other different types, including irritant dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular eczema and seborrheic eczema.
Common types of eczema
The two most common types of eczema are:
Caused by a combination of genes and environmental factors. Symptoms of atopic eczema include red, dry, scaly and itchy patches of skin. It can occur anywhere, but is most often seen in skin creases such as the backs of the knees, and anywhere on the hands and feet. During a flare up, skin can weep, crust and bleed. Further complications, such as infection, may develop.
A localised reaction causing redness, itching and burning where the skin has been in contact with an allergen or irritant, such as acid, cleaning products, or cosmetics. It accounts for 84-90 per cent of work-related skin disease.
Other types of eczema include seborrheic, which affects the scalp; and discoid, which causes coin-shaped patches of eczema on the body.
What are the symptoms of eczema?
All the different types of eczema have the same symptoms, but your doctor will be able to tell you which particular strain you have. Eczema can cause the creases in your arms and legs to become dry, itchy, cracked, scaly and red. If you scratch the affected skin, then it can grow thicker and split. If your eczema becomes infected then you can get painful blisters full of pus and lumps which weep, bleed and crust over. You can also get eczema on your face, neck, scalp and other parts of your body.
Severe eczema can keep you up at night, making it difficult to get the recommended eight hours of sleep because you feel so itchy. This can impact on both your personal and work life as you’re likely to feel drained and tired most of the time.
Common eczema triggers
In eczema, the skin is less able to both retain water within its cells, and to produce fats and oils. This means the skin’s barrier function is compromised, leaving it susceptible to dryness, irritation and infection.
There are lots of different things that can result in you developing eczema. These include:
- Having a food allergy/intolerance.
- Your genetics – some types of eczema are hereditary.
- Having asthma.
- Using harsh soaps and skincare products that irritate your skin.
- Your body producing more of the IgE antibody than needed, which can impact on your immune system.
- Having a viral infection.
- Your skin not forming a strong enough barrier.
- Having an allergy to dust mites, pollen, cats or dogs.
- Being stressed.
- Having other medical conditions.
- Being in close contact with chemicals and irritants at work or in the home, without wearing protective gloves or clothing.
- Changes in the weather. Cold spells can dry your skin out, making you more prone to eczema.
How to treat eczema
Almost 3 in 4 children who suffer from eczema will find that it clears up by the time they’re 7. However, some people suffer for the whole of their lives, but the right treatments can make it manageable.
Your GP may refer you for allergy testing to identify any causes. They might recommend soap substitutes or prescribe you antibiotics or antihistamines however, you could also try treating it yourself at home. For temporary relief, applying a cool, wet cloth to your eczema should help stop it itching but you really need to try to figure out what is causing your eczema if you can. You should also:
- Avoid products that could irritate your skin.
- Nourish your skin with a moisturiser containing Manuka honey,chamomile or aloe vera.
- Keep a note of different foods that trigger your eczema and then eliminating them from your diet.
- Drink plenty of water and follow a diet filled with fruit, veg and essential fatty acids.
If your eczema is severe then you shouldn’t suffer in silence. Go and speak to your doctor as they can prescribe steroid creams or other ointments. For atopic eczema, emollients (moisturisers) need to be used every day and topical corticosteroids (topical steroids) creams and ointments should be applied during flare-ups.
Depending on the severity of your eczema, your doctor might refer you to a dermatologist who can put together a tailored treatment plan. They might suggest phototherapy (light therapy) and/or stronger medication.
There are plenty of natural remedies available that could help to soothe your skin. You may even find some in your kitchen cupboard:
Thanks to today’s social media, there aren’t many people out there who haven’t heard of this wonder oil. Known for its multi-faceted health uses, this oil’s great at sinking itself into the skin and replenishing moisture. It’s available to buy pretty much everywhere, with raw or pure versions providing the best relief.
A healthy gut can work wonders for your overall health as 80% of your immune system is positioned in your digestive zone. A healthy gut leads to healthy skin and healthy bacteria are known for their gut friendly properties. Acidophilus can be taken or found in Sauerkraut, or you can take them in tablet form.
Honey is a great healer and has been used in this regard for years. Not only does it contain antibacterial properties but it also helps to moisten skin.
A soothing bath
Sometimes, you need to take it back to basics. If you have tried everything but are still coming up cracked, then have a go at an Oatmeal soak. This doesn’t actually involve immersing yourself in a giant tub of porridge but it does work by draining the goodness out of the oats to instantly soothe and moisturise your skin. Tie a cup of oats into a muslin cloth and pop into the bath. Bathe in the milky water for 15 minutes to feel the full effects.
This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.