The word eczema comes from the Greek word ‘ekzein’, which means ‘to boil out.’ Believe it or not, it’s one of the most common skin conditions you can have, with one in five children and one in 20 adults having the condition.
But you don’t have to put up with eczema, there’s lots you can do to ease your symptoms.
What is eczema?
Is an inflammatory skin condition that triggers dry, itchy skin and skin rashes. Also known as dermatitis, eczema affects five million people in the UK each year.
You can develop eczema symptoms at any age, although it’s more common in children. Most people grow out of it, although some may continue to have dry skin or be prone to flare ups later in 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, also known as Cradle Cap.
Common types of eczema
The two most common types of eczema are:
- Atopic eczema
Is caused by a combination of genes and environmental factors. Symptoms of atopic eczema include red, dry, scaly patches and skin rashes that itch.
It can occur anywhere, but is most often seen in skin creases, such as the backs of the knees. It’s also possible to get atopic hand eczema and for it to also develop on people’s feet. During flare ups, skin can weep, crust and bleed. Further complications, such as infections, may develop, especially if you have severe eczema.
- Contact dermatitis
Causes a localised reaction to take place, which results in redness, itching and burning where the skin has been in contact with an allergen or irritant, such as acid, cleaning products or cosmetics. Contact dermatitis accounts for 84 to 90% 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 of the different types of eczema have the same symptoms, but your doctor will be able to tell you from your eczema symptoms, 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 that weep, bleed and crust over. You can also get eczema on your face, neck, as well as scalp eczema, and eczema over 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 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. Some of the main eczema causes are:
- 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 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
It’s not uncommon for red, dry or itchy skin patches to develop on a baby’s face, behind their ears and/or within the folds that are on their neck, knees and elbows.1
Baby eczema is something that most babies grow out of as they get older however, in the meantime, they may scratch at their eczema patches, which could result in them getting infected.2
Interestingly, baby eczema can flare up if they’re feeling under the weather, e.g. they’re teething, have a cold or are overtired.3
Treatments for baby eczema are varied and include: using unperfumed moisturisers on the eczema patches, avoiding aqueous cream, as this can cause burn and sting the skin, and dressing your baby in light, cotton fabrics.4
Eczema in children
Almost three in four children who experience eczema will find that it clears up by the time they’re seven-years-old.
Atopic eczema is more common in children and often develops before they turn one.5
Children who have eczema, usually tend to develop it in the folds of their elbows and/or knees. It can sometimes appear on their hands – at least 70% of people have had hand eczema at some point in their life.
Redness and itchy patches behind children’s ears, on their feet or scalp, may also be a sign of atopic dermatitis. They could also be symptoms of other conditions, such as seborrheic dermatitis, which can exist with eczema.6
Treatment for eczema in children is very similar to treatment for baby eczema.
Adults also tend to develop atopic dermatitis on different parts of their bodies to children. These areas include the backs of their knees, back of their neck and around their eyes. The skin around the eyes can become extremely itchy.
Some people may live with eczema for many years however, the right eczema treatments can make it manageable.
Your GP may refer you for allergy testing to identify any causes. They might recommend soap substitutes or prescribing you antibiotics or antihistamines.
How to avoid symptoms of eczema
If you live with eczema, you may have realised that certain things can trigger a flare up. Make sure you keep a note of your triggers. In the meantime, make sure you:
- Avoid products that could irritate your skin
- Nourish your skin with a moisturiser
- Keep a note of different foods that trigger your eczema and then eliminate them from your diet
- Drink plenty of water and follow a diet that’s filled with fruit, veg and essential fatty acids
Your next step
If your eczema is severe then you shouldn’t suffer in silence. Go and speak to your doctor as they can prescribe steroid eczema creams or other ointments for severe eczema.
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 eczema plan. They might suggest phototherapy (light therapy) and/or stronger medication.
Last updated: 14 September 2020