ECZEMA a word that may conjure dread in the hearts of many out there.
You may have experienced it in some form yourself or watched helplessly as your child suffers from its hideous symptoms. You might still be going through this, feeling that familiar irritation or trying to soothe and calm your child as they seek comfort and relief from that never-ending itch. If so, you are by no means alone.
Figures indicate that in the USA more than 31 million people suffer from some form of eczema.
In the UK, that number is estimated to be around 15 million.
The truth is that these figures are probably far higher, as there is a tendency to view skin conditions as being less serious than other illnesses and diseases, with many people choosing not to seek medical advice. Most will ignore the symptoms, some will self-diagnose themselves, sometimes buying creams or lotions over the counter rather than attend a doctor’s appointment.
The idea that skin conditions are not as important as other illnesses has even been witnessed by those providing medical aid to developing countries, where more serious conditions are, naturally, the main focus.
Skin conditions are often relegated to a secondary position of importance, and in some cases are ignored completely, with entire cultures accepting their diseases as being a fact of life. But this is gradually being addressed as the medical world, including bodies such as the World Health Organization, are beginning to realize that this is a huge oversight.
Skin conditions, including eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis, should be given the same level of importance as other diseases. Not only are they causing distress and suffering to countless millions all around the world, but they could also be indicators of other health issues that need immediate attention. A greater understanding of these conditions is needed, to help those who experience these symptoms daily and to provide suitable treatment to ease, if not cure, the disease.
What is eczema?
The word itself comes from the Greek term meaning ‘to boil over’ or ‘erupt’.
In effect, it means to ‘break out’, all of which perfectly describe the symptoms experienced by so many people. An accurate diagnosis can be problematic, as there are a few different types of eczema (which includes the various forms of dermatitis), with different causes:
Contact dermatitis – this is caused either by the skin coming into contact with allergens or irritants, such as detergents or solvents, or even extremes of temperature. The most common form is irritant contact dermatitis, which usually happens fairly rapidly after the skin has been exposed to heat, irritating chemicals, certain metals, or has been rubbed or scraped. This is even more likely in cases where the patient already has an open wound or suffers from atopic dermatitis. The skin becomes inflamed quite quickly, often restricted to the area that was exposed to the irritant but which can spread, especially if not treated properly or exposure to the irritant is repeated over time.
Symptoms can include swelling, redness, itching and dry skin.
Atopic dermatitis – this is recognized as the most common form of eczema, mostly affecting children. Doctors often refer to it as one of the ‘triad’ of illnesses, as sufferers frequently experience asthma and hayfever at the same time, with all three conditions generally easing and disappearing by adulthood. Symptoms usually show as a red rash in the creases of the elbows and knees. The affected skin sometimes thickens or changes in appearance, becoming lighter or darker.
When scratched, tiny blisters can leak a clear fluid, with the broken skin allowing infection to occur which worsens the condition. Atopic dermatitis can be caused simply by having dry skin. Those who are sensitive to certain environmental conditions are likely to suffer, but the condition can also be genetic, as well as be a sign of a problem with the immune system. Those with atopic dermatitis will be prone to contact dermatitis, even being affected by some soaps or cosmetics.
Hand eczema – as the name implies, this affects the hands only and is really a form of contact dermatitis specifically affecting people who tend to work in roles where irritants are handled frequently, without adequate protection. The symptoms include dry, cracked, reddened skin, which itches and may form blisters.
Dyshidrotic eczema – affecting only the hands and feet, and with patients more likely to be women, this condition appears as small blisters that itch or even hurt. The skin can become scaly or flaky, or crack, bringing the risk of infection. Causes include allergic reaction, exposure to certain substances such as nickel or cobalt. Stress can also contribute to this condition, as can exposing the hands and feet to prolonged periods of dampness.
Stasis dermatitis – generally more of a problem amongst elderly patients or those with bad circulation, this is related to veins in the lower legs that have become weakened over time, often resulting in ‘varicose veins’. This is a result of the blood not being pushed around the body properly, which damages the vein. The skin above these becomes itchy and flaky, with fluid leaking from the damaged skin. The lower legs feel heavy and often swell, usually after being active. Sores sometimes break out on the affected areas, which will be reddened and itchy.
Nummular dermatitis – quite a distinctive form, this shows on the body as small, round patches of red skin, which can be extremely itchy. The patches resemble coins; hence the name – nummular is Latin for ‘coin’. Those who suffer from this will probably already have another form of the condition, such as atopic dermatitis. The distinctive coin-like marks may appear as a result of dry skin, or even an insect bite or an allergic reaction.
Neurodermatitis – often triggered by stress, this form also affects those who already have another type of dermatitis. It looks different in that the affected area will display patches of thick, scaly skin on the arms and legs, hands and feet or back of the neck, and even around the genital region. Again, breaking the skin, by excessive scratching, may result in infection.
Seborrheic dermatitis – a particularly severe type of dermatitis, this form is usually found on the skin around areas that contain sebaceous glands (the glands that produce oil) like on the scalp or around the nose or mouth but can appear on other parts such as the back or upper chest. The precise cause is unknown, but it is thought to be genetic, as well as possibly being connected to hormone imbalance. Though it can affect those of all ages, cases are usually found in infants below the age of 3 months – in the form of ‘cradle cap’ – and adults between the ages of 30 and 60 years, and mostly in men. Patients with a pre-existing illness affecting the immune system or nervous system are particularly vulnerable to this form. The symptoms differ from some of the other types, in that the affected area displays greasy, yellow scales and pinkish or reddened skin. The skin either itches or burns, with swelling in places. It usually requires a qualified physician to identify these conditions properly and to prescribe the appropriate treatment, and even then it may take a certain amount of trial and error as patients display symptoms differently.
One skin complaint that is often mistaken for eczema, but is equally as unwelcome, is psoriasis. Whilst not related to eczema, it sometimes displays similar symptoms to some of the types (especially seborrheic dermatitis), though it is generally reported to cause a lower level of irritation and itching.
In spite of this, severe cases are agonizing for the patient, making everyday activities almost impossible. Living with eczema As with a lot of sickness and disease, we all react in different ways. Some manage better than others, and many people don’t even seek help to alleviate the symptoms.
The problem with skin conditions is that they are often visible, and even when they aren’t they can prove to be uncomfortable, getting in the way of our daily lives and making us miserable. When they are visible, such as those forms that appear on the scalp, face or hands, this can be a real problem.
The general public can be, intentionally or not, unkind in their reactions. While ignorance plays a part in this, it is fair to say that what is uppermost in their minds is self-preservation rather than any direct nastiness – though there is a minority who will be vocal in their objection to your appearance.
People will stare, some will recoil or make an obvious move to avoid you, just because they see the reddened or flaking skin. They assume it is infectious, that somehow they are going to catch something.
Most don’t ask or wait for an explanation!!
This reaction can make social occasions, going to work, or even simply heading out for a trip to a shopping mall a very stressful undertaking.
This is the last thing you need, as stress is a common cause of skin problems. The bad news for eczema sufferers is that – at the moment – there is no actual cure.
Thankfully, though, advances in medicine mean that treatment for skin conditions are improving all the time, though it has to be said that not all of these are readily available to everyone, either due to physical location, or because they are so expensive.
A doctor will usually prescribe a steroid cream, or more accurately a ‘corticosteroid’. While these are useful, they are not recommended for long-term use (more than 3 months), and the list of possible side effects makes for a grim read.
Corticosteroids, usually shortened to ‘steroids’, have no connection with those taken, unwisely, by some athletes to gain muscle quickly, but instead are artificial versions of the hormone ‘cortisol’, produced by the adrenal gland. While short-term use is generally considered safe enough, you may be given conflicting opinions by different doctors. Some will advise you never to use a topical steroid cream on the facial area as it will damage the delicate skin. Others will wave this aside and even insist that long-term use is fine.
Any damage caused by using these creams is invariably written off as being down to ‘patient misuse’, but the effects usually mean that the condition gets much worse, either because too much – or too little – is used or the treatment is stopped too suddenly.
In the end, it is up to the individual whether they trust their physician’s knowledge and experience. Many people, however, are turning to alternative methods, preferring to use natural skin relief. Nature is a wonderful provider of medicine, usually without the negative side effects of man-made remedies.
This is especially important for pregnant mothers, as it is considered unsafe for them to use topical steroid creams during pregnancy as it is possible that it could be absorbed by the unborn child.
The skin is often overlooked, taken for granted, with most people forgetting (or not even realizing) that it is the largest organ in the body. It is vital to your existence, forming a waterproof, protective barrier between your internal organs and the outside world. It regulates your temperature, It allows you to touch and feel. And it needs looking after.
When skin complaints arise it is always best to seek advice from a medical professional. It does not hurt, however, to look for natural ways to ease the discomfort. There are many ways of doing this – most being simple common sense.
Some involve minor changes in lifestyle, such as cutting out certain foods or avoiding harsh detergents. One of the best ways to bring relief is by using natural oils that compliment your skin rather than trying to mimic those your body makes – and with no side effects when used properly.
By using these oils sensibly, alongside some simple lifestyle changes, you can manage the irritation and reduce the impact of this miserable condition, leaving you to get on with living your life.