The word eczema comes from a Greek word, which literally means ‘something that’s thrown out by heat’ (or ‘is boiled over’). Eczema is actually a word that describes a group of skin conditions that cause blisters, redness, oozing, crusting, scaling, thickened skin and pigmentation changes.
This is a chronic (long-term) problem, which usually strikes at birth or in early childhood. Luckily, many outgrow it before school age and it is non-contagious. Although there’s no cure to eczema yet, there are medical treatments that can keep the condition under control.
If there is one symptom that is always associated with eczema, it is an irresistible itch in the affected area. Sometimes the itch appears even before a rash is seen. Eczema-related rashes can occur on any part of the body, but are more common on the face, arms, knees, hands or feet. In infants, the itchy rash may ooze and look patchy, especially on the face and scalp.
The skin on the affected area looks very dry, thickened or scaly and in light-skinned people, these rashes may first appear to be reddish and inflamed and will eventually turn brown. In people with darkercomplexion, the eczema-affected region may appear either light or dark.
What happens when you have eczema?
Although the exact cause is not understood, it is believed that the immune system in people with eczema overreacts to an irritant causing it to become itchy, inflamed and painful. And like other chronic disease, eczema runs in families, especially in families with other allergies or asthma.
An eczema episode can begin when the sensitive person’s skin comes in contact with certain substances (like soaps, detergents, animal dander, etc) or is exposed to conditions (such as cold, heat, upper respiratory tract infections, etc). Many will first develop itch when eczema begins, but some people suffer “flare-ups” of the itchy rash. Stress seems to may aggravate the condition.
About Atopic eczema
Although there are many types of eczema, atopic dermatitis is most common and is caused by allergy sensitivity. It is usually seen in children, but can occur in a small percentage of adults too. Both children and adults find it very difficult to deal with this condition.
Atopic dermatitis, which is otherwise known as atopic eczema, is an itchy inflammatory condition, which appears as a red and irritated area on the skin. The situation is made worse by an irresistible urge to scratch the irritated area. Sometimes the affected area becomes infected and the red patches may ooze liquids. In the chronic stage, lichenification or skin thickening can be seen.
Atopic dermatitis is more common in families that suffer from a history of allergies. It is more likely that atopic dermatitis patients will suffer from hay fever or asthma in the future.
Long exposure to water, chemicals (in detergents, perfumes, soaps, etc), dry heat, cold weather, excessive stress, exposure to pollen, sweat and humidity are likely to trigger atopic dermatitis.
Some varieties of fabric, such as wool and rayon could irritate the skin. Certain foods like soybean, dairy products or gluten-containing products may also trigger an atopic eczema episode.
Why eczema spells havoc?
There has been a study conducted in the US, which has indicated a possible link between adult eczema and higher rates of smoking, drinking and obesity. These behaviours put the patients at high risk for cardiovascular disease, hypertension, as well as diabetes.
Eczema is associated with pain, which makes the patients prone to insomnia. The patients also seem to suffer from self-esteem and identity crisis due to their condition.
As eczema episodes could be triggered by sweat, patients often shy away from exercise, which makes them prone to being overweight or obese and adds to their health woes and emotional distress.1
Goals of treatment
There is no permanent cure for eczema, but medical science has discovered means of controlling the symptoms or severity of the disease. The primary goal of eczema therapy therefore revolves around relieving and preventing the symptoms, particularly itching, as it often leads to skin damage and infection.
The common eczema treatments include the use of lotions and creams or emollients that can keep the skin moiturised, because this skin condition is characterised by dry and itchy skin.
Steroids, such as hydrocortisone 1% cream are available over-the-counter and can relieve mild-tomoderate inflammation. Sometimes you may need more potent corticosteroids to reduce the severe inflammation and these will be available on prescription. Your GP may also prescribe some topical antibiotics, in case the area is infected with bacteria.
Other eczema treatments would include antihistamines (that reduce severe inflammation), photothereapy (use of ultraviolet light) and some other topical corticosteroids. These treatments should be taken only on prescription as some of them are linked with birth defects and other side effects.
Dealing with eczema outbreaks
Like all chronic diseases, eczema needs to be managed by some lifestyle changes. As too much exposure to heat or long hours of exposure to water can aggravate the reaction, people with eczema should limit the time spent in baths or showers and should use only lukewarm water. Stress is an enemy of eczema, so you should think of ways to keep stress out of your life.
Patients should always protect their skin from becoming overly dry and should use only mild soaps and detergents. It is best to avoid perfumes and other cosmetics that could trigger an itch or inflammation
Medications ranging from over-the-counter creams to prescription ointments can provide the much needed relief. Thick moisturisers like petroleum jelly can help lock in much of the moisture and are preferred in extreme conditions.
The ointments and moisturisers (unscented) should be applied soon after a warm shower and when the skin is still damp, so the moisture can be locked in. Cold compresses can also help soothe the inflammation and itch.
The eczema linked itch can be quite unbearable, but scratching will only complicate the situation. Wear comfortable clothes, which are made of cotton or cotton blends, because they allow aeration.
Pay attention to your personal hygiene. Long fingernails may make eczema matters worse. So keeping them well trimmed and short can prevent injuries. If you tend to scratch in your sleep, wear cotton gloves while in bed.
Eczema may be a life-long condition, but people can lead as normal lives as possible with small lifestyle modifications. Staying calm, cool and hydrated can help a great deed in putting eczema woes behind you.
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