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Eczema: What You Need to Know

Conditions
Last Updated Oct 29, 2020

Eczema is a common condition in which changes occur to the skin.  It can be uncomfortable and embarrassing to the sufferer.  Eczema can affect anyone from the young child to an adult and can "flare up" at different times

Symptoms

The symptoms of eczema include changes to skin colour, redness, itchiness, raw skin (from scratching the skin), blisters which may ooze or have a crust if they have been scratched, a rash and thickened skin may be seen on areas that have been subject to eczema for a long period of time.  Older children and adults usually exhibit a rash on the inside of the elbow and knee, on hands, feet and the neck, whereas younger children often have a rash on their scalp, face, feet and hands.

Causes

The exact cause of eczema is unknown although research continues in this area.  Eczema is a hypersensitivity reaction in the skin.  Genetics may play a role in the development of eczema as it has been shown that children have a much higher incidence of eczema if their parents also suffer from this.  The skin can dry out and allergens can cause the skin to become itchy and inflamed.   There are a number of "triggers" that may make the symptoms of eczema worse.  These include; dry skin, exposure to irritants in the environment; for example the weather (hotter or colder environments), chemicals, tobacco smoke, contact with ‘rough’ materials or factors which may be allergens such as mould, dust mites, pets, pollen, grasses, some soaps, dyes or laundry detergents, and cosmetics.  Sometimes a food allergy can aggravate eczema and although stress does not directly cause eczema it may make symptoms worse in some sufferers.

Diagnosis

It is important that you see your doctor if you suspect that you, or a family member has eczema.  Your doctor will usually discuss you and your family’s history of eczema or skin conditions and look at the appearance of your skin.  There is no definite test to diagnose eczema but your doctor may order other tests to rule out other health conditions.  Your doctor may refer you to a dietitian if they believe that a certain food may aggravate your eczema symptoms.

Therapies That May Help

Once you have seen your doctor you may be given a number of different treatments to try.  These may include; using different laundry detergent, avoiding soaps and cosmetics with perfumes, dyes, alcohol and chemicals, and using moisturiser(s).  It is important to keep the skin moist so your doctor may recommend a moisturiser or ointment for use.  Remember to moisturise soon after bathing or washing to try and lock in as much of the moisture as possible.  Depending on the severity of your eczema your doctor may ask you to use a mild steroid cream and then check if this helps.  Sometimes your doctor may use stronger medication(s) and if the rash becomes infected antibiotics may be needed.  You may also like to discuss the use of antihistamines with your doctor as they may help reduce the itchiness.  Barrier repair creams may also be useful.

It can also be helpful to try and dress in garments that are 100% cotton.  You should also limit the amount of stress in your life whenever possible as stress may exacerbate the symptoms of eczema. Try not to itch and scratch at any redness or rash as these may become infected.  Children (and sometimes adults) may need to wear gloves at night time and to have their fingernails trimmed regularly to avoid itching.  It is also important to be careful in environments where the air contains less moisture (such as an airplane cabin) as this can further dry the skin out.

If you find that your eczema is triggered by pets you may need to make arrangements for these to be out of the house more and you will need to vacuum regularly to pick up pet hair. It is also important to dust regularly and wash bed linen and towels frequently.  If you suspect that a food source aggravates your eczema you should consult a dietitian as you will need help planning a balanced diet.

It is possible to control eczema but this can take time.  It is important to consult with your doctor and dietician (if you suspect food worsens your symptoms) to ensure you have the right treatment plan.

Originally published on Jan 12, 2012

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