Eczema: causes, symptoms and how to manage
Atopic eczema, also named atopic dermatitis, is a condition that inflames the skin, causing itchiness, dryness and redness. It affects between two and five percent of the population, and one in ten children. Along with related conditions such as asthma and hay fever, it can run in families, be congenital, but can sometimes improve with age.
What does eczema look like?
Skin that is affected by eczema looks and feels sore. The skin can break when scratched which can make it worse, however, scratching is hard to avoid since the main distressing symptom is itching. Key symptoms of eczema to look out for are;
How to manage the condition
Tom Branwell, a planning enforcement officer from south London, has had eczema all his life. He talks to us about how he manages his condition. “It's just something I've lived with and it's varied throughout the course of my life,” he explains.
“It's just one of those things. I got it first as a kid, on the back of my knees and on my elbows, but that cleared up. Then it appeared on my hands, when I was about 14, and it's never really gone away properly.”
He manages his eczema by keeping his hands moisturised, with gentle products (free of alcohol denat, artificial fragrance and colour), and by avoiding soap and other ‘stripping’ agents that could aggravate his skin. Currently he favours a gentle emollient body wash.
“Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, but it's always there and it's just something that I try to manage. Certain things can irritate it – using the wrong kind of soap, or dust, chemicals, that sort of thing. They make it more painful, but that might be partly because it's inflamed already.”
When his eczema is particularly bad, he'll use a steroid cream. “But only when it really flares up. I don't want to use it too much, as long-term use obviously isn't going to be good for your skin.”
Tom was offered a skin-prick test, as part of a one-off health promotion run by Allergy UK, in a bid to identify his triggers (what things he is most sensitive to). “Certain things came up, like house dust mites for example, and that certainly makes sense, because being in a dusty environment can certainly make it a lot worse.”
The results also flagged birch, hazel, and grass, which resonated with Tom, who shared he also gets mild hay fever. “The thing is it comes and it goes, so I hadn't thought about grass, for example, making it worse before. But it probably does have an effect – it's probably one of the things that sets it off.”
Treatment and Self Help
The best course of treatment of eczema should always be advised by a GP. Your GP may recommend one of, or a combination of the following;
Emollients - lotions and creams that are mixtures of oil and water
Topical steroid creams – corticosteroids, such as hydrocortisone, to reduce inflammation
Wet wraps – pyjama like clothing, often used for children to allow the skin to heal underneath
As well as the treatment methods mentioned above, your GP may also advise there are things you can do yourself to help manage your symptoms;
Avoid scratching – persistent scratching could cause scarring and infections to occur
Avoid your known triggers
Use your recommended treatment regularly to keep on top of your eczema
For information about eczema and other allergies, what causes them and how to minimise their impact, visit the Allergy UK website. You can also call the Allergy UK helpline on 01332 619898.
If you’re a member of Benenden you can call our 24-hour GP advice line to talk to a doctor about any health concerns you may have.