Eczema is a skin inflammation, or a rash. It can range from mild to severe and can be dormant for a period of time or flare up for months at a time. It usually starts in childhood, but most children who have eczema grow out of it by the time they are in their early teens. Anyone can have eczema, but it is hereditary and is most likely to be found in people who have a family history of eczema.
There is no cure for eczema, but the symptoms are treated with a variety of medicines, lotions, and creams as well as dietary and behavior changes. Because there are many different causes, types, and triggers for eczema, it is difficult to define. What we do know is that eczema is big business, one of the most common skin conditions in the United States.
What Causes Eczema?
People who have eczema are likely to develop dry, red patches of skin in areas where there is a joint or a fold of skin, like behind the knees, inside the elbows, the neck, behind the ears, or the ankles. Some researchers believe that people who are prone to flares of eczema have extra sensitive skin and an overreactive immune system.
Their skin may not provide enough of a barrier or may have weak areas that allow germs and infection to get under the skin. Another study showed that children who were born to older mothers were more prone to have eczema. Because it is such a complex condition, it is difficult to pinpoint the cause as it may be different with different people.
Each person may have different triggers that will cause his or her eczema to flare, but some likely triggers are stress, itchy clothing, a dry climate or a cold climate, or dry skin. People can also react to man-made fibers in clothing, or to environmental triggers such as pollution, or harsh chemicals in the environment such as cigarette smoke or chlorine, or personal care products such as perfume, lotion, or makeup. Certain prescription drugs may also cause flares of eczema.
What are The Different Types of Eczema?
There are several types of eczema, each with a different presentation:
- The most common is atopic dermatitis. This is usually the condition that is referred to as eczema. “Atopic” refers to an allergic reaction, and “dermatitis” means an inflammation of the skin. People who have atopic dermatitis, or eczema, are more likely to have other allergies as well, although eczema is not an allergic reaction.
- Contact dermatitis – can be caused either by an allergy, such as an allergic reaction to nickel or by touching something that irritates the skin, like poison ivy or a caustic chemical.
- Dyshidrotic dermatitis – only affects the hands and the feet. The hands and feet become itchy, red and dry, and often develop painful cracking that can bleed and become infected.
- Seborrheic dermatitis – is also known as dandruff, and usually just affects the scalp although it can affect the eyebrows and skin around the face or behind the ears. In this case, the skin is itchy and produces white flakes.
- Stasis dermatitis – happens when circulation to the legs is impaired. This can cause the skin to become tight, dry, and develop brown patches.
- Nummular dermatitis – causes red, coin-shaped spots to occur on the arms and legs. This is more common in men, and the cause isn’t known for sure.
What Are The Symptoms of Eczema?
Symptoms of eczema usually start with itchy skin. The skin can have an itchy patch even before a rash appears. After the itching begins, a dry red patch appears. The skin appears thickened and tough, and the skin can crack and bleed, especially if it is scratched. Eczema can appear anywhere on the body but is likely to be found on the face, or knees or elbows.
If the rash is scratched repeatedly and open to the air, it can also develop an infection. You need to see your doctor immediately if you notice blisters or pus around the red, itchy skin because that could indicate an infection. If you have any open sores associated with eczema, it is important to stay away from people who are sick so you do not get an infection through the open wound.
How Can I Treat My Eczema?
- Avoid triggers – If you know what triggers your eczema, avoid them as best you can. Wear clothing that is made of natural fibers or feels smooth to the touch. This usually means no wool. Avoid using chemicals such as harsh soaps or bubble bath or shampoo. Be sure to wash your clothing in a natural, hypo-allergenic detergent. Certain foods may be a trigger for you, or even letting your body temperature get too hot or too cold. It may take some time and effort to find out what your triggers are, but the time is well worth avoiding an eczema flare. Most of all, avoid the temptation to scratch.
- Use moisturizers – Using a moisturizing lotion or cream every day is very important for people who have eczema. Again, because added chemicals may actually trigger a flare, try to choose a moisturizer, cream or ointment that is natural and without added scents and colors.
- Steroid creams – When you are having a flare, your doctor may prescribe a steroid cream for short-term use. Steroid creams are prescribed at the lowest dose to start, and the concentration of the steroid may be increased as needed. Generally steroid creams are safe when used for less than four weeks. Some side effects have been reported with steroid use. Some of these side effects include stinging or burning, a change in skin color especially in those with darker skin, and stretch marks in the area where the steroid is applied. Some system-wide effects of long-term steroid use include high blood pressure and a decrease in bone density. Steroid creams should always be used under the supervision of a doctor.
- Homeopathic/natural treatments – In order to avoid the side effects that come with using steroids, many patients find relief using homeopathic methods. Some eczema patients find that a diet high in healthy fats helps improve their eczema symptoms, or they follow a diet that avoids allergic triggers such as artificial colorings and flavorings. Homeopathic treatments can be applied directly to the skin, such as coconut oil, and cod liver oil. Other remedies are taken orally such as bone broth, gelatin, magnesium, and probiotics. Generally, oils with polyunsaturated fats can be helpful in treating eczema as well. This includes sunflower and safflower oil, flax seeds and flax seed oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and the oils found in many types of fish.
- CBD Oil – Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of over 100 cannabinoids found in the cannabis or marijuana plant. It is not the compound that causes an altered mental state, or a “high,” but has many medicinal uses. CBD oil also has anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties which improve the symptoms of eczema. Studies have shown that hemp seed oil or CBD oil made from the marijuana plant also contains polyunsaturated fats and may be beneficial for treating eczema.
For the sake of safety, if you would like to try some homeopathic remedies to treat your eczema, make sure that your doctor is aware of anything you use that may affect your prescription medication.
Eczema is a common skin complaint with a variety of conditions and complaints. Because it affects so many people, each person may find they have a unique set of symptoms and triggers, as well as treatments that work best for him or her. The good news is that patients have access to a wide array of treatments that will help reduce or eliminate the suffering caused by eczema. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor and to try several treatment options until you find what works best for you.