What Is Eczema and How Do I Treat It?
A Distressing Skin Disorder
Eczema is a distressing condition that causes the skin to become itchy, red, dry and cracked. It afflicts children and adults alike. Multiple theories exist about the cause of the disorder, but none have been proven conclusively. It can flare at any time without any obvious causes; however, it can often be successfully treated. I have suffered from it on and off throughout my life, but thankfully in recent years it has disappeared.
What are the Symptoms of Eczema or Atopic Dermatitis?
Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a type of skin disorder or condition which manifests itself as a redness and inflammation of the epidermis or outer layer of the skin. Often the area can be covered with tiny blisters filled with lymph fluid and the underlying skin tissue can swell as fluid is released. The surface of the skin is sometimes scaly and can crack easily. Itching is a constant symptom of the disorder and this creates an "itch-scratch-itch" cycle where itchy skin is scratched, becomes raw and irritated, leading to more itchiness and then further scratching.
Eczema is non contagious since it is a disorder, not a disease. However damaged skin may become infected.
Typical Symptoms of Eczema
What Parts of the Body Are Affected by Eczema??
Eczema usually affects the hands, face, backs of the legs and knees, elbows and scalp.
What Causes Eczema and Immune System Disorders?
Normal skin is made up of an outer layer, middle layer and inner fat layer. One of the functions of skin is to act as a barrier to keep moisture in and harmful substances out. Normally water and oil in skin helps to maintain this function. However if you suffer from eczema, your skin doesn't produce the same quantity of fats and oils and can easily dry out, become cracked, scaly and prone to irritation. The result is an overreaction of the immune system and classic inflammation symptoms such as redness, swelling and blisters.
Soap, hand washes and detergents can exacerbate the situation by removing natural oils from the skin. Cold frosty weather may also be detrimental as air humidity is often low and this dries out skin. Other chemical irritants and known allergens can also cause a flare up of eczema.
Eczema has a genetic component and often several members of a family will have symptoms of the condition.
My Personal Experience as an Eczema Sufferer
As a baby I had eczema on my face. It then disappeared until I was about ten at which point the back of my leg became itchy. Scratching led to irritation and redness and then further itchiness. As anyone who suffers from eczema knows, this "itch-scratch-itch" vicious circle is what tends to prolong eczema and keep it active. Eventually this phase of my eczema ended and I was free of the scourge for several years.
My next experience of the condition was when I was about 14. I was cutting privet hedges and had cut and scratched my little finger. I don't know whether this was the trigger factor but from what I can remember, the finger became itchy afterwards and soon I started getting this rash on my hand which spread from finger to finger and to the back of my hand. The symptoms were classic: redness, itchiness, water blisters, swelling and skin cracking. Over the next 20 years both of my hands became affected. The severity of the condition varied, ranging from a light rash to mildly swollen uncomfortable hands. If I got anxious, the condition worsened. At night I would scratch my itchy fingers and wake up in the morning with "angry" skin.
How is Eczema Treated?
Some or all of these treatments may help reduce the severity of your eczema:
Hydro-cortisone steroidal anti-inflammatory cream is a standard treatment for acute skin inflammation and in my case it did help to reduce irritation and itchiness. These creams should be used with caution as they are well known to cause thinning of the skin if used for long periods.
Eliminating Food Products
Individuals who are prone to allergies may find that certain foods exacerbate their condition. You can try eliminating certain foods for a period and see if there is an improvement. It can be very difficult to establish a cause/effect relationship however because your eczema flare-up may disappear when you eliminate one food, but this may be just a coincidence because some other factor has changed.
Avoiding Soap and Detergents
I try to avoid washing my hands with soap or hand washes as much as possible, unless my hands are really dirty. Soap removes a lot of the natural oils from the skin, drying it out and making it prone to cracking.
Hand creams are essential to replace moisture if you have to wash your hands with soap/hand wash. However some contain alcohol and while I can tolerate this to some extent on my hands, I have found that many moisturizers irritate and burn the skin on my face.
On frosty days I noticed that my skin cracked and split. While I used to think that this was caused by the cold, I reckon that low air humidity on frosty days caused my skin to dry out, become inflexible and crack. Central heating can also dry out air, making skin more prone to cracking.
It's important to avoid scratching as this exacerbates eczema, resulting in an itch-scratch-itch cycle. Instead of scratching, try rubbing. Heat from a radiant fire or heat lamp is also quite useful for reieving itching. Small children can be provided with soft cotton mittens to prevent them scratching their skin while sleeping. Adults can also scratch in their sleep so mittens can also help. Keep finger nails short.
Stress and anxiety seem to exacerbate the condition and cause a breakout of eczema in other parts of the body. While avoiding stressful situations is easier said than done, various techniques such as doing yoga and taking regular exercise may help.
Does UV Cure Eczema?
Around 7 years ago my eczema disappeared. I had been doing a lot of welding without wearing gloves around this time, and as you may be aware, arc welding produces lots of UV radiation. It might be just coincidence or it could be a serendipitous discovery that UV cures the condition! (By the way, I don't recommend or advise welding without gloves!).
My eczema appears to have gone "into remission." Mild attacks occasionally re-occur but are confined to small areas of skin on my hands or feet. Usually this is due to excessive washing and scrubbing of my hands with soap, contact with washing-up liquid and other detergents.
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© 2013 Eugene Brennan