Eczema: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment
Eczema is a term used for a wide range of inflammatory skin conditions. It develops in children in the majority of cases but can manifest itself in adulthood. It causes itchy, red, dry, scaly and cracked skin, usually behind the knees and elbows, on the side of the neck, and around the ears and eyes. Areas of skin can become discoloured temporarily, and skin may blister and bleed. Eczema is not always recognised a serious health condition, but it can have a negative impact on quality of life for children and their parents.
Types of Eczema
- Atopic Eczema is the most common kind, with the main symptoms of itchy, inflamed skin
- Contact Eczema refers to a localized reaction to contact with an irritant or allergy causing substance such as cosmetics, cleaning products, nickel or poison ivy
- Seborrheic Eczema is a type of skin inflammation that presents as yellow, oily and scaly patches of skin, usually on areas of skin that are greasy, oily or hairy, such as eyebrows, scalp or chest
- Nummular Eczema affects more men than women, featuring coin-shaped patches of irritated skin occur that may be crusted, scaling and itchy
- Neurodermatitis, where a frequently- scratched area such as an insect bite can develop scaly patches of skin on the head, lower legs, or arms, which become intensely irritated when scratched
- Stasis Dermatitis, a skin irritation of the lower legs, usually related to circulatory problems
- Dyshidrotic Eczema, which involves deep blisters that itch and burn, causing irritation of the skin of the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
- Exfoliative Dermatitis, which is a rare complication of atopic dermatitis, causing lesions all over the skin, fever and toxicity of the organs, and in severe cases may be life-threatening
Facts About Eczema
- Atopic eczema is inflammatory, relapsing and non-contagious.
- The word ‘eczema’ comes from the Greek word ‘ekzein’ which means ‘to boil’.
- 1 in 5 children and 1 in 12 adults have eczema.
- Atopic eczema runs in families and often occurs alongside similar health conditions such as asthma and hayfever.
- More people are being diagnosed with eczema, possibly due to changes in lifestyle or environmental factors, or increased knowledge leading to a correct diagnoses.
- There is no cure for eczema, but it can be managed with correct care.
- Eczema can affect people of all ages, with men and women being affected equally. Many people grow out of it as they grow up, but it may recur in later life. Usually, a doctor can identify eczema just by looking at the affected areas, but they may also use a sterile swab to take a sample to rule out the possibility of a skin infection.
Causes of Eczema
Our skin is the barrier between our bodies and the outside world and is made up of skin cells, fats and water. If the skin does not have enough fats and natural oils to keep waterproof, then gaps can open up between the skin cells because they do not retain enough water. This then allows bacteria or irritants to pass through more easily, leading to inflammation and itching. It is unknown what exactly causes eczema in the first place, but many factors can make it worse or cause a ‘flare up’, which is when eczema is more active, such as:
- Extreme heat or cold
- Excess humidity or aridity and dust
- Irritants such as perfumed soap, shampoo, washing up liquid or biological detergents
- In rare cases, certain foods may trigger it
- During viral or bacterial infections
- Allergens such as dust mites, pet fur, or pollen
- Wearing clothing made from heavy, tight, or scratchy fabrics such as wool
- Man-made materials such as nylon and polyester
- In women, changes in hormone levels, such in the menstrual cycle or while pregnant
- Stress and anxiety.
Natural Remedies for Eczema
There is currently no cure for eczema, but there are steps you can take to keep symptoms under control. Severe eczema may require a steroid-based cream to reduce inflammation, but these can have unwanted side effects and should only be used for short-periods of time. If you are looking for a natural approach, the first step is to identify flare-up triggers so that you can avoid them as much as possible.
- Avoid common triggers such as scented shower gels, biological washing powders, synthetic materials, animal fur and dust mites.
- Try using a humidifier in your home to avoid your skin getting too dry, especially in winter when central heating is used.
- The sap of the aloe vera plant can be used as a soothing moisturiser on dry and irritated skin. Creams and gels are available, or you can use the sap straight from the plant.
- Use natural oils like coconut oil, jojoba oil or almond oil to soften the skin and help lock in moisture after a shower or bath. They are often less expensive than branded eczema creams and lotions. You can even add them to your bath for added softness.
- Avoid unnecessarily exposing your skin to extreme cold or heat, this can worsen eczema.
- Pregnant women can take probiotics, which according to a study published in the British Journal of Dermatology, could help to protect the unborn baby from developing eczema
- If you suspect that certain foods are your eczema triggers, which could be nuts, eggs or wheat, try cutting them out. Allergens will be different for everyone, so experiment with avoiding different types of foods and keep a food diary until you know what works for you.
- If your skin feels hot and inflamed, try wrapping some ice cubes in a cloth and apply to the affected area to relieve itching.
- Babies and small children can wear ‘anti-scratch’ mittens which stop them from doing further damage to skin, especially while they are asleep.
An Anti-Eczema Diet
What you eat has a huge effect on the appearance of the skin so it’s important to take care with your diet. Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition, so the best foods are those which offer anti-inflammatory benefits.
Foods to Eat:
- Omega 3’s: The best foods for eczema are those rich in omega 3 fatty acids, such as oily fish, flaxseeds and nuts. Omega 3’s, whether thats from your food or omega 3 fish oil supplements, can help to reduce inflammation and relieve dryness by restoring some of the skins essential oils.
- GLA: The omega 6 fatty acid GLA has also shown promise in relieving inflammation. There is evidence that some people with eczema are unable to convert GLA into a usable form in the body. A great source of GLA is evening primrose oil.
- Vitamins A, C, D and E: important for the maintenance of collagen in the skin, helping the skin to remain hydrated, smooth and elastic.
Foods to Avoid:
- Refined carbohydrates and sugars.
- Certain fruits. Some people find that oranges, tomatoes, lemons and strawberries trigger flare ups.
- Food additives and preservatives: Prepacked and processed foods. MSG, sodium benzoate, sodium glutamate.