The Doctor's Notebook - eczema | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - June 2006

The Doctor's Notebook - eczema

What is eczema?

Eczema, or dermatitis as it is sometimes called, is a group of conditions which cause inflammation of the skin. The term ‘eczema’ comes from the ancient Greek meaning ‘to boil over’, which is how the skin feels to someone suffering from the condition.

What are the symptoms?

Eczema is characterised by patches of dry, itchy, flaky skin which are often red and painful. The severity of the condition varies — in mild cases the affected skin is dry, hot and itchy, while in patients with more severe symptoms the skin can become broken and raw, prone to bleeding and weeping. Eczema can occur anywhere on the body, but is most common in sites where the skin creases, for example inside the elbows and wrists and behind the knees. Although it can sometimes look unpleasant, eczema is not contagious.

How common is it?

Eczema is one of the most common skin complaints, affecting one in five children and one in twelve adults. It is estimated that as many as 30 per cent of all people with skin disorders have eczema.

What causes it?

^There are two main types of eczema, atopic and contact, and they have different causes.^ Atopic eczema is the most common and is thought to be caused by an oversensitivity to allergens in the environment. This overreaction by the immune system causes the inflamed and irritated skin that characterises the condition.

Atopic eczema is thought to be hereditary, often developing during childhood. Many children grow out of it as they get older, but it can flare up again during adulthood. People with this type of eczema are often prone to other atopic conditions such as hay fever and asthma.

Contact eczema, on the other hand, usually affects adults and is caused when a person comes into contact with something to which they are allergic, for example nickel, detergents, perfume or soap.

What treatments are available?

^There is no cure for eczema, nor is it known how to prevent it from occurring in the first place^, but there are a number of creams and treatments that can help to keep it at bay.

Emollients, sometimes called moisturisers, come in a variety of forms such as lotions, creams, ointments and additives for the bath or shower. They ‘oil’ the skin to help it retain moisture, combating the characteristic dryness of eczema, as well as keeping it supple. Steroid-based creams and anti histamine tablets can also be effective. Moisturising on a daily basis is important to help keep skin hydrated.

If you suspect that you have eczema, you should visit your GP to find out which treatments will help ease your symptoms.

Some people choose to explore natural therapies as an alternative to prescribed medication. Acupuncture, homeopathy and relaxation techniques have proved beneficial for some, as well as evening primrose, tea-tree and fish oils, and vitamins C and E.

Can lifestyle affect it?

The root causes of eczema may be beyond a patient’s control, but there are certain triggers that many people find can make their eczema worse, including stress, particular foods, illness and even changes in the weather. Avoiding triggers where possible, adopting a good skin care routine and wearing cotton clothing can all help to minimise flare ups.

Latest findings

Earlier this year, it was reported that scientists have discovered the gene that causes dry skin and predisposes people to atopic conditions like eczema and asthma. It is hoped that this discovery may lead to new treatments in the future.

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