Eczema is a general term used to describe a group of skin conditions characterized by inflammation of the outer layer of the skin called the epidermis. This inflammation leads to a variety of unpleasant signs and symptoms including red skin, skin thickening, an itchy rash, blistering and skin crusting. There are a number of different types with the most common being atopic eczema. This form is more common in people with a history of allergies or hay fever. Eczema is a chronic condition that can be successfully treated in most cases.
No one knows the exact cause of atopic eczema, but there seems to be a genetic susceptibility to the disease that’s triggered by some environmental factor or factors. In someone who’s genetically susceptible, an irritant in the environment seems to stimulate the immune system, causing it to overreact. This leads to chronic inflammation and the unpleasant symptoms of eczema.
Certain triggers can make the symptoms worse and these vary from individual to individual. They include stress, extremes in temperature, certain personal care and household products, foods, pet dander, cigarette smoke and even certain types of material, particularly roughly-textured fabrics such as wool. Avoiding these triggers can reduce the symptoms. Keeping a symptom diary may help to identify what these triggers are.
If you have eczema, it’s important to keep your skin moisturized, and avoid picking and scratching at the rash. Doctors usually recommend steroid creams to patients with this skin condition to reduce the inflammation and itching. The problem with prescription steroid creams is they cause thinning of the skin if used for long periods of time. That’s why they’re not advised for longer term use and are best reserved for severe itching.
A safer option is to ease the itch and irritation of eczema by using moisturizers. Dermatologists recommend bathing in warm but not hot water and using a gentle, fragrance-free, non-drying cleanser. Look for one containing emollients to lock in moisture. For additional benefits there are cleansers which contain thermal spring water in order to reduce irritation and promote healing while helping to restore skin’s natural moisture barrier.
It’s important to apply moisturizer immediately after bathing to help skin hold onto moisture. Choose one that is fragrance free to avoid irritation. A good hydrator should contain emollients as well as soothing ingredients to calm the skin. This will soften dry eczematous skin while reliving skin irritation and itching. Moisturizers also nourish the skin’s natural moisture barrier. For itching, use a product with a gentle anesthetic to soothe skin irritation. This is a safe alternative to steroid creams.
Avoid wearing synthetic fabrics and wool, which can irritate the skin. Instead, choose cotton and cotton-blends that don’t hug the skin too tightly. Eczematous skin needs room to “breathe.” Look for a laundry detergent that contains no added fragrance, and rinse clothes thoroughly. Stress is another common trigger, so take steps to reduce stress in your life. Meditation, yoga, tai-chi and self-hypnosis can all help to lower stress levels and ease eczema symptoms. Stay away from skin care products that contain alcohol or fragrance. Keep a food diary for a few weeks to see if certain foods make the symptoms worse or consider getting allergy testing to determine what to avoid.
Eczema is a chronic condition, but it can be treated by avoiding triggers and keeping skin moisturized. There are drugs used to treat severe cases of eczema that block the immune response, but these drugs have serious side effects and are used only in cases that fail to respond to other treatments. Fortunately, most cases respond to over the counter treatments.