Eczema is a term for a group of medical conditions that cause the skin to become inflamed or irritated. The most common type of eczema is known as atopic dermatitis, or atopic eczema. Atopic refers to a group of diseases with an often inherited tendency to develop other allergic conditions, such as asthma and hay fever.
Eczema affects about 10% to 20% of infants and about 3% of adults and children in the U.S. Most infants who develop the condition outgrow it by their tenth birthday, while some people continue to experience symptoms on and off throughout life. With proper treatment, the disease can be controlled in the majority of sufferers.
What Are the Symptoms of Eczema?
No matter which part of the skin is affected, eczema is almost always itchy. Sometimes the itching will start before the rash appears, but when it does the rash most commonly occurs on the face, back of the knees, wrists, hands, or feet. It may also affect other areas as well.
Affected areas usually appear very dry, thickened, or scaly. In fair-skinned people, these areas may initially appear reddish and then turn brown. Among darker-skinned people, eczema can affect pigmentation, making the affected area lighter or darker.
In infants, the itchy rash can produce an oozing, crusting condition that occurs mainly on the face and scalp, but patches may appear anywhere.
What Causes Eczema?
The exact cause of eczema is unknown, but it’s thought to be linked to an overactive response by the body’s immune system to an irritant. It is this response that causes the symptoms of eczema.
In addition, eczema is commonly found in families with a history of other allergies or asthma.
Some people may suffer “flare-ups” of the itchy rash in response to certain substances or conditions. For some, coming into contact with rough or coarse materials may cause the skin to become itchy. For others, feeling too hot or too cold, exposure to certain household products like soap or detergent, or coming into contact with animal dander may cause an outbreak. Upper respiratory infections or colds may also be triggers. Stress may cause the condition to worsen.
Although there is no cure, most people can effectively manage their disease with medical treatment and by avoiding irritants. The condition is not contagious and can’t be spread from person to person.
How Is Eczema Treated?
The goal of treatment for eczema is to relieve and prevent itching, which can lead to infection. Since the disease makes skin dry and itchy, lotions and creams are recommended to keep the skin moist. These products are usually applied when the skin is damp, such as after bathing, to help the skin retain moisture. Cold compresses may also be used to relieve itching.
Over-the-counter products, such as hydrocortisone 1% cream, or prescription creams and ointments containing corticosteroids are often prescribed to reduce inflammation. For severe cases, your doctor may prescribe oral corticosteroids. In addition, if the affected area becomes infected, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to kill the infection-causing bacteria.
Other treatments include antihistamines to reduce severe itching, tar treatments (chemicals designed to reduce itching), phototherapy (therapy using ultraviolet light applied to the skin) and the drug cyclosporine for people whose condition doesn’t respond to other treatments.
How Can Eczema Flare-ups Be Prevented?
Eczema outbreaks can sometimes be avoided or the severity lessened by following these simple tips.
- Moisturize frequently
- Avoid sudden changes in temperature or humidity
- Avoid sweating or overheating
- Reduce stress
- Avoid scratchy materials, such as wool
- Avoid harsh soaps, detergents, and solvents
- Be aware of any foods that may cause an outbreak and avoid those foods
Eczema and Skin Care
It is critical that basic skin care measures be maintained in order to keep atopic dermatitis under control. Basic steps include avoiding substances that trigger eczema, selecting and using appropriate skin care products and frequent moisturizing.
Moisturizers for Eczema
One of the most important steps for treating and managing atopic dermatitis is to use a moisturizer. Moisturizers provide a layer of protection from irritants, trap moisture in the skin, help restore the skin barrier, and improve the skin’s appearance.
Regular use of a moisturizer for eczema may reduce the need for other medicines.
Moisturizers are best applied at least twice a day within 3 minutes after a bath, shower, or swim.
When choosing an eczema moisturizer, look for a hypoallergenic and ointment-based product. Thicker moisturizers will protect the skin longer than lighter lotions. Avoid moisturizers containing alcohol, fragrances, or other chemicals that can irritate the skin. Even seemingly harmless substances like glycerin can dry the skin of people with atopic dermatitis.
Brand names of frequently recommended moisturizers include:
- Vaseline Petroleum Jelly—-though thick, it is quickly absorbed by very dry skin
Before applying the moisturizer for eczema, use tepid water and a gentle cleanser to remove dead skin cells. Do not scrub or rub excessively. Apply the moisturizer immediately afterward while the skin is still damp.
Remember to use plenty of moisturizer to keep atopic dermatitis at bay, especially in children. Keeping a child’s skin sufficiently moisturized could require as much as 1-2 bottles of moisturizer per week. Adults will need even more.
Take an Oatmeal Bath
Colloidal oatmeal helps soothe the skin and stop the itch of eczema. Look for a pre-packaged oatmeal bath at your drug store and soak for about 15 to 20 minutes.