Eczema is more than just a few patches of dry skin – this long-term skin condition can have a big impact on your daily life. Read on to discover how to manage atopic eczema
Written by Victoria Goldman on March 7, 2019
Reviewed by Dr Nicole Chiang on March 15, 2019
If you’ve ever experienced eczema, you’ll know just how itchy this skin condition can be. It now affects one in five children and one in 12 adults in the UK,1 but eczema – officially called atopic eczema – is thought to be on the rise, possibly due to climate changes and increasing pollution.2
Here’s our guide to understanding the symptoms.
What is eczema?
Eczema, also known as dermatitis, is a dry skin condition that causes an itchy, red rash that can vary in severity. There are several different types of eczema, including contact dermatitis <link to: What is contact dermatitis?>, but usually when people talk about ‘eczema’, they mean atopic, or allergic, eczema. Atopic eczema isn’t contagious, so you can’t catch it from anyone else.3
Symptoms of atopic eczema can flare up and calm down, but may include the following:4
- itchiness – so bad that it stops you sleeping and impacts your mood
Atopic eczema can appear on any part of your body, but it’s more common on the face, hands, creases of elbows and knees, wrists and neck.5
What causes atopic eczema?
In healthy skin, fats and oils made by your skin seal in moisture – plumping up skin cells with water – so the skin’s outer layer becomes a barrier against infection and irritation.6
However, if you have atopic eczema, your skin makes fewer fats and oils than it needs to stay healthy. The latest theory is that it’s caused by a particular gene mutation, which triggers a deficiency of a protein called filaggrin – needed for skin cells to hang on to water.7
Without this, not only does the skin lose vital moisture, but gaps emerge between previously plumped skin cells – like losing mortar around the bricks in a wall – allowing infections and irritants to enter. Soap, shampoo, shower gels and other everyday substances can then start to dry, irritate and inflame skin. And dry, damaged skin is highly susceptible to sensitisation by allergens.8
Who is most likely to get eczema?
Atopic eczema often affects young children, but most grow out of it before they become teenagers. However, a tendency develop to atopic conditions, including eczema, hay fever or food allergy, often runs in families. Some adults are prone to atopic eczema too, particularly if they use irritant chemicals in their job, such as hairdressing, cleaning or nursing.9
Tips to prevent an eczema flare-up
While you can’t fix a family tendency to develop eczema, you can make some changes to help support your skin and reduce the risk of a flare-up:
1. Moisturise your skin with emollients – these contain a mixture of fat and water. Choose shower or bath emollient and a moisturiser-style emollient, either as a cream, lotion or ointment. Rub it in after bathing, when your skin is still damp, to lock in moisture.10
2. Keep a diary to work out triggers – it’s important to know what can set off your eczema, so noting down what you were doing before a flare-up can be helpful. Common triggers can include:11
- cigarette smoke
- change in temperature
- dust mites
- pet dander
3. Eat oily fish – A 2016 review in Dermatology Practical & Conceptual found that taking omega-3 fatty acids – found in oily fish such as mackerel, tuna, herring and salmon – improved eczema symptoms overall, and also decreased the size of rashes.12 However, the researchers suggested more studies are needed.
In addition, eating oily fish or taking fish oil supplements in pregnancy may reduce the risk of your baby developing eczema, according to a 2017 study by University of Southampton.13 Always speak to your midwife or GP before taking any dietary supplements while pregnant.
4. Consider using plant oils – A 2018 Taiwanese review found that jojoba oil, rosehip oil and oat oil, found in colloidal oatmeal, all have anti-inflammatory effects on eczema. Researchers also reported that oatmeal can help support skin barrier repair.14
Managing your eczema symptoms
It’s important to see your GP or a dermatologist about your eczema if you are having trouble managing your symptoms. They can prescribe any necessary medication, such as steroids, to use alongside your emollients.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
1. National Eczema Society. What is eczema?
2. Atopic eczema. Patient
3. As Source 1
4. British Skin Foundation. Eczema
5. As above
6. As Source 1
7. National Eczema Association. Skin-Directed Management of Atopic Dermatitis Focus of New Report
8. As Source 1
9. As Source 4
10. National Eczema Society. Emollients
11. National Eczema Society. Eczema Causes and Triggers
12. Schlichte MJ, Vandersall A, Katta R. Diet and eczema: a review of dietary supplements for the treatment of atopic dermatitis
13. Miles EA and Calder PC. Can Early Omega-3 Fatty Acid Exposure Reduce Risk of Childhood Allergic Disease?
14. Tzu-Kai L, Zhong L, Santiago JL. Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils