The term eczema describes several non-contagious conditions where the skin becomes inflamed, red, dry and often itchy. While the exact cause is unknown, certain factors including stress, diet, irritants (including some soap-based products), allergens and environmental conditions can all trigger flare-ups.
What are the symptoms?
Eczema commonly affects the hands and areas where the skin naturally folds, for instance the inner elbows and backs of the knees, though the severity can differ greatly from person to person. Symptoms typically include patches of chronically itchy, dry, thickened skin, though there are several different types of eczema, each of which has different symptoms and triggers. The most commonly occurring are:
Atopic eczema is the most common form of the condition and is typically characterised by patches of itchy, inflamed skin. The condition may come and go according to exposure to certain triggers or causative effects. Atopic eczema tends to run in families who often have a history of allergic conditions, such as asthma or hayfever.
Contact eczema, or contact dermatitis as it’s sometimes known, is a localised skin reaction that results in redness, itching and burning where the skin has come into contact with an allergen or irritant such as an acid, cleaning agent, or other chemical substance. It can also be aggravated by contact with irritants in common substances such as wool and synthetic fabrics, sweat, soap and other agents that dry out the skin.
The symptoms of seborrhoeic eczema include yellowish, oily, scaly patches of skin commonly occurring on the scalp and face. Not necessarily typified by itching, dandruff and cradle cap are both classed as seborrhoeic eczema.
Who is affected?
Eczema affects 1 in 12 adults and affects men and women equally. It’s also common in children and infants, although many outgrow it before they start school. Like asthma, eczema appears to run in families, with certain genes apparently making individuals more prone to the symptoms. Since eczema may also be linked to stress, it’s common for sufferers to experience flare-ups in response to times of emotional flux, for instance during exams or moving house.
Treatments for eczema include topical emollient creams and ointments, steroid creams, antibiotics and antihistamines. In mild cases, your GP may recommend over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream but will sometimes prescribe a stronger steroid cream if symptoms are more severe.
Other treatment options are available for more persistent and severe cases – please speak to your GP for the best recommendation for you.
A good skincare routine is an essential step in helping to control eczema and may often be enough to ease symptoms in very mild cases. Choose a gentle cleanser and avoid harsh, highly fragranced soaps or bubble baths which may exacerbate symptoms.
Avoid taking hot showers and baths which can dry out the skin further and pat, rather than rub, yourself dry. To help seal moisture into the skin, apply moisturiser directly after bathing or showering, following the line of natural hair growth.
While eczema is complex with many attributing factors, there are certain steps you can take to help manage the condition.
Choose your clothing carefully
Certain fabrics, including many non-breathable synthetics, and even some wools, can irritate eczema-prone skin. To lessen symptoms, choose loose-fitting clothes made from natural fabrics like cotton or linen that allow for good airflow around the skin. Pre-wash all new clothes to remove potential irritants before wearing and use a mild, non-biological washing powder, making sure that clothes are rinsed fully of all soap before wearing.
Resist the temptation to scratch
It’s difficult, but if you can, try to avoid scratching eczema which can cause further damage, even infection, to the already compromised skin surface. It may be useful to wear cotton gloves at night to discourage scratching.
Avoid strenuous exercise during flare-ups
While it’s important for your mental and physical wellbeing to keep active, avoid strenuous exercise that causes excessive sweating which can further irritate eczema symptoms. Instead, stick to gentle, moderate exercise like walking, yoga or pilates.
Identify your stress triggers
It’s not fully understood why, but stress can worsen some sufferers’ symptoms. For others, the eczema itself becomes a source of stress. Recognising your stress triggers can help you avoid them. Minimise stress levels by exercising gently and regularly, taking up a new hobby that you find relaxing or by adopting relaxation techniques like meditation or mindfulness.
Regulate body temperature
Extremes of temperature can make your eczema symptoms worse. During the warmer months, sweat can irritate your skin making it prickly or itchy, while in the winter, low humidity caused by central heating leeches moisture from the skin.
Avoid heavy duvets or electric blankets that may cause you to sweat at night and keep your central heating at a moderate level.
Pick your beauty products carefully
Highly fragranced creams and lotions, as well as strong perfumes, are generally best avoided by eczema suffers. Choose make up that is hypo-allergenic or fragrance-free and always keen your brushes clean to lessen the risk of infection on broken skin.
For further information
The National Eczema Society
National Eczema Society
11 Murray Street
Helpline Tel: 0800 089 1122