More than 31 million people in the United States suffer from symptoms of eczema during their lives, and if you're one of them, you know just how uncomfortable outbreaks of the skin condition can be. Although eczema usually doesn't pose any long-term health risks, dealing with the symptoms can greatly decrease your quality of life and make it hard to sleep, concentrate and even in enjoy your leisure time.
Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a chronic inflammatory skin condition. Typically, people who suffer from eczema experience outbreaks of a red to brown rash that makes the skin appear thick and scaly. In some cases, the rash may consist of bumps that leak fluid and then form a crust. Usually, the rash is very itchy and will appear suddenly without warning. After the initial outbreak of eczema, the rash will usually return periodically.
An outbreak of eczema can occur anywhere on your body, but many people find that the condition strikes the scalp most often. Doctors and medical scientists don't fully understand why eczema occurs on the scalp and the rest of the body, but believe that the problem is due to hypersensitivity caused by a malfunction in the immune system.
Scalp eczema is usually triggered by coming in contact with a trigger substance, something harmless that your immune system detects as a threat. In response to the trigger, your immune system releases chemicals that create an inflammatory response, and the rash that marks scalp eczema appears. People with allergies and asthma are more likely to develop scalp eczema than other people, but the rash is not specifically caused by either condition.
Unfortunately, there is no permanent cure for scalp eczema; however, when you have an outbreak, you can take steps to reduce the discomfort and hasten the healing of the rash. You can also follow some easy self-care tips to lessen the likelihood that eczema flare-ups will occur.
If you suffer from scalp eczema, the most important self-care step that you can take is considering your bathing habits. Exposure to too much water can exacerbate scalp eczema, but allowing your scalp to become too greasy can also make the condition worse.
If you usually shower, consider switching to baths, so that you can keep your scalp dry until it is time to wash your hair. When you do wash, use care not to scrub too hard, and select shampoos designed for sensitive skin or for people with dry scalps.
During times when you do not have an outbreak, when you're finished bathing, towel dry your hair and then use a comb to part it and reveal sections of your scalp. Apply a small amount of a high quality, gentle moisturizer to the skin before it dries, as this will help create a seal to lock in moisture and prevent dehydration. Dry skin is more susceptible to eczema than properly hydrated tissue, so it's vital that you take the extra time to apply a moisturizer after every wash.
In addition to taking care of your scalp during bathing, avoid wearing hats and other head coverings whenever possible. Consider investing in a humidifier to keep the air in your home less dry, particularly during the winter months.
For severe, frequently occurring cases of scalp eczema, a visit to your doctor may be in order. Dermatologists and general practitioners have at their disposal a number of prescription medications, which can provide relief from your symptoms, help rashes heal more quickly and even reduce the frequency of outbreaks.
When you have a scalp eczema outbreak, prescription topical corticosteroids can help eliminate the rash by suppressing the effects of your immune system. Both shampoo and liquid corticosteroids are available to help combat scalp eczema; however, these drugs cannot be used long term as they can cause thinning of the skin on the scalp.
In some severe cases, your doctor may opt for oral corticosteroids or even corticosteroid injections. Like topical treatments, these drugs also suppress your immune system, but normally to a greater degree. Another option for oral medications is an immunomodulator like tacrolimus or pimecrolimus. Typically, these drugs are reserved for cases where all other treatments have failed due to their potential to cause possibly dangerous side effects.
As an alternative to prescription drugs, some doctors throughout the United States are now using phototherapy to treat scalp eczema. During a phototherapy treatment session, your skin is exposed to controlled amounts of sunlight or artificial ultraviolet light, both of which help speed up the healing process. Because sun exposure can increase your risk for skin cancer, phototherapy requires the supervision and monitoring of a doctor. If you have a history of skin cancer in your family, your doctor may decide that phototherapy is not safe for you.
If your scalp eczema is mild to moderate in nature, you may be able to manage your symptoms by using over-the-counter products. To relieve itching, try taking an over-the-counter oral antihistamine like diphenhydramine, which reduces amounts of histamine, the chemical in your body that causes that itchy feeling.
You can also look for shampoos, conditioners and hair treatments that contain natural ingredients, which can help to soothe irritation and provide relief from scalp eczema symptoms.
Among these ingredients are:
- Coal tar This substance is derived from the processing of coal and has a thick black consistency. When applied to the skin, coal tar helps to reduce eczema rashes and is often added to shampoos and scalp treatments.
- Evening primrose oil Derived from a plant that is native to North America and produces light yellow flowers, this natural extract is rich in gamma linolenic acid. Some studies have found that patients with eczema are often lacking in this natural fatty acid and receive relief from symptoms through topical applications of evening primrose oil.
- Chamomile extract The name chamomile is actually given to a group of herbs that produce flowers that look like daisies. The extracts of these herbs contain chemicals that have a calming effect upon the skin. When used by patients with scalp eczema, chamomile may help reduce itching and ease some of the inflammation associated with outbreaks.
- Borage seed oil Sourced from the Borago officinalis plant, which is native to China, borage seed oil is similar to evening primrose oil in that it is rich in gamma linolenic acid. Applying a shampoo or treatment with the ingredient may help to supplement levels of the fatty acid in your skin to reduce signs of eczema.