Eczema is a condition which causes skin to become red, itchy, dry and cracked. It usually affects areas with folds of skin, such as the inside of elbows and knees, and around the neck and eyes and ears. The most common form, atopic eczema or atopic dermatitis, affects one in five in children with 35% of cases continuing past the age of 16. One in twelve adults suffer from atopic eczema.
The condition varies in severity from person to person. Symptoms include: redness of affected areas of skin, generally dry skin, which is often thickened in the areas that have been scratched, lumps or blisters in affected areas, signs of superficial infection, such as weeping or crusty deposits.
The condition tends to come and go with sufferers having flare-ups leading to sore, cracked and bleeding skin. Because the condition causes skin to become itchy, it can lead to scratching and this can damage the skin and increase the chance of infection.
The exact causes are unknown, but it usually affects people with allergies, such as asthma and hay fever. It can also run in families, as such if you are predisposed to eczema, the condition may be triggered by allergens in the environment such as dust, dust mites or pollen. In many cases, some types of food can act as allergens that trigger eczema; examples include milk, eggs, nuts and wheat.
Eczema can also be triggered by other factors including cold weather, rough clothing, harsh soaps, washing too much, stress and excessive sweating.
Eczema cannot be cured but symptoms can be eased with various ointments and creams. These can be used to control the dry skin, swelling and redness that appear during severe flare-ups. Atopic eczema improves with age, and disappears in 53% of children when they reach 11 and 65% of children by the age of 16.
When you are suffering with eczema, it can be both physically uncomfortable and emotionally draining, so it’s important to identify the right treatment for you to help control the symptoms.
Emollients are moisturising treatments that soothe the skin to reduce dryness, cracking and itching. They are frequently used to control the symptoms, and tend to come as creams, ointments, lotions or bath additives.
The right choice for you will depend on your skin and the severity of your symptoms, but in general, ointments are the best for very dry skin (although they’re the most greasy to use). Emollients are also useful as a substitute for soap, which can be very drying to the skin.
If you find that emollients are not quite providing the level of relief that you need, topical corticosteroids might be an option. These are steroid creams and ointments that are applied to the skin to help reduce the redness and inflammation during flare-ups. The steroids vary in strength. Smaller packs of mild steroids can be bought without a prescription. For larger pack sizes and stronger doses, as well as creams with other added ingredients to tackle infections, a prescription will be required.
How do I know if my eczema has become infected? Signs of an infection can include: •fluid oozing from the skin •eczema getting worse •a yellow crust on the skin surface or small yellowish-white spots appearing in the eczema •the skin becoming swollen and sore •a high temperature (fever) and generally feeling unwell
It is important to see your doctor if you feel that your (or your child’s) eczema has become infected.
Contact dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin, usually caused by irritants or allergens. If you can avoid contact with the source of the irritation, your symptoms will disappear. Otherwise ointment and creams should help to manage the symptoms.
Discoid eczema usually affects adults. Sufferers get circular or oval patches of eczema on the body, but not on the head or scalp. Treatment usually consists of antibiotic cream or tablets.
Dyshidrotic eczema or pompholyx causes tiny blisters to erupt on the hands and sometimes on the soles of feet. It can clear up by itself. You should avoid contact with irritants. Creams and ointments may help to ease the symptoms.
Seborrhoeic eczema causes red scaly skin on the sides of the nose, eyebrows, scalp and ears. It is also associated with dandruff which can be managed with an anti-dandruff shampoo.
Varicose eczema occurs on the legs often around swollen veins. Keeping active and wearing compression stockings can help along with regular use of ointment and creams.
The word 'eczema' comes from Greek meaning 'to boil over'
'Dermatitis' comes from the Greek word derma for skin and itis for imflammation
Both eczema and dermatitis refer to exactly the same skin condition
According to Allergy UK it is estimated that up to 15 million people in the UK could be living with eczema
Q: My eczema seems to be affected by the weather, is this normal?
A: Yes. In hot weather we tend to sweat which can exacerbate the symptoms but it is also the time of year when our skin is most likely to come into contact with sun creams, chlorine, insect bites and pollen, all of which can cause flare-ups. By the same token, many sufferers also experience flare-ups during colder months, when the air is dry and cold, and low humidity affects our skin.
Q: How do I know whether or not I need a stronger, prescription steroid cream?
A: Generally speaking, if you find that the regular application of emollients is not easing your symptoms you may need something stronger. Your GP can advise the treatment options available. We can also provide access to our online GP who will work through your symptoms and advise accordingly.