Everything You Need to Know About Eczema/Dermatitis

What is eczema?

There are two main types of eczema, atopic and contact. Atopic eczema is usually found in folds of skin, such as arm pits, behind knee caps in on the joints of your arm. Atopic eczema is common in individuals who have either a personal or family history of hay fever or asthma as "atopy" often runs in families. The second type is called contact eczema and this most commonly occurs on the hands and feet.

Eczema affects the skin and is inflammatory, causing the skin to become dry, red, itchy and cracked which in turn can lead to further problems and discomfort. See the symptoms below for more information.

Eczema commonly affects young children at an early age but will often disappear within a year or so, or perhaps as the child reaches teenage years. It can also persist for a longer period of time and in some cases sufferers may not have any symptoms until they reach adulthood. In some cases, individuals develop eczema in later years.

For some however, the condition will be with them long-term, possibly for the duration of their life, and can lead to a lot of discomfort and frustration.

A study in 2009 suggested that cases of eczema were on the rise, increasing by some 40% in the previous four years. It is still not known what exactly causes eczema, nor is there an outright cure for the condition. Atopic eczema is often passed on through generations of a family and sufferers of atopic conditions will often have others in addition to eczema.

What are the symptoms of eczema/dermatitis?

The predominant symptom associated with eczema or dermatitis is itching, and the areas of skin affected will also become red, dry, flaky and often cracked. The itching may be limited to just one area of the body, such as an arm or hand, or it may be widespread on feet, legs, hands and other areas.

The symptoms will also differ from person-to-person in terms of severity, with some having only minor irritation from the itches and subsequent skin damage, while others will have particularly distressing and long-lasting symptoms. One of the issues with eczema is that the more the sufferer itches the affected area, the worse condition that the skin will then be in.

Eczema can be further complicated due to the deterioration of the affected areas of skin. If a sufferer itches a lot, skin can become cracked and open which can lead to infected eczema - which typically requires doctor prescribed treatment.

Non-medical treatment of eczema

In addition to purchasing specialist creams and seeing your GP, there are other steps that you can take to relieve symptoms of eczema. Additionally, it may be possible for you to identify things that trigger your eczema, in which case you can take preventative action.

Areas to concentration on that may make a difference include:

Dehydration can cause skin to become drier than usual. There is evidence to suggest that a lack of hydration can affect cells in your body and trigger eczema, so you may find that keeping yourself hydrated throughout the day can help with your skin condition.

Clothing can also further irritate a sufferers skin, especially if it causes them to become too hot or the fabric itself irritates the skin (e.g. woollen jumpers). Additionally, if you wear gloves at home or in work for tasks such as washing dishes or doing gardening, then be careful which type you use. Rubber gloves, for example, have been known to irritate skin and thus worsen eczema.

Soaps and shower gels 
Pay attention to the soaps, hand wash and shower gels that you use each day. Many mainstream soaps and cosmetics actually cause skin to become drier than before using them, despite sometimes claiming to the contrary. Again, it can differ person-to-person, so if you find your skin is regularly dry in the hours after taking a shower, then look for alternative and perhaps medicated alternatives from your local pharmacy.

Daily activities 
Finally, beware of the impact of routine daily activities can have. If you wash your hands in work after going to the toilet for example, ensure you dry your hands properly. Also, frequent washing and drying of hands can make eczema on the hands worse so it is important to use a soap substitute.

Medical treatment of eczema

If you notice that you have symptoms of eczema, at first you should seek help from your pharmacist who can offer over-the-counter creams and ointments from your local pharmacy. There are many creams available to help moisturise your skin and thus relieve the symptoms of eczema. However, the effectiveness of each will differ from one patient to the next, so you may need to be prepared to try several before you find one which works best for you. These emollient creams should be used at least 3-4 times per day - ensuring that your skin is kept well hydrated through the day. Some creams can also double up as a soap substitute for showering and washing your hands with. Many flare-ups of eczema happens when individuals do not use enough of these creams often enough and this is one of the first things that your doctor will recommend for you to do.

If your symptoms are quite bad, do not go away within a couple of weeks, or over-the-counter medications have not worked, then it's advisable to see a GP. A GP will first confirm whether you do have eczema and then possibly prescribe a steroid cream to use on your eczema when it is particularly troublesome. The GP will normally recommend that you keep on using copious amounts of the emollient creams in addition to any prescribed steroid cream. Very rarely, a GP may have to refer you to a specialist if your eczema is particularly troublesome and not responding to the normal treatment.

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