What is Eczema?
Eczema is a term that covers a whole variety of dry, sore skin conditions that can cause the skin to become itchy and inflamed.
Eczema is a term that covers a whole variety of dry, sore skin conditions that can cause the skin to become itchy and inflamed. The most common kind is known as atopic eczema or atopic dermatitis, which, in its mild form, is characterised by red, itchy and scaly skin.
Unfortunately more severe atopic eczema can result in weeping, crusty and bleeding skin; this kind of eczema generally needs the attention of a doctor to get symptoms under control and reduce the risk of secondary problems such as infection.
How Common is Eczema?
The various different types of eczema affect millions of people across the world - as many as one in five children and one in twelve adults - and cause huge amounts of discomfort and misery for the adults and children who face a constant struggle to control their symptoms. Eczema in babies can be particularly distressing for everyone involved, leading to sleeplessness and stress.
As well as atopic eczema, people can also suffer from other types of eczema such as hand eczema, contact dermatitis and seborrheic eczema.
What are the Symptoms of Eczema?
Although eczema manifests itself differently in different people there are some constant symptoms that will lead to a medical diagnosis of the condition. These include:
Itch: caused by the activation of nerves in the skin alerting the brain to danger. Imagine the itch as an alarm going off in a building.
Redness: caused by increased blood flow to the affected area as a result of active immune-system response.
Thickening of the Skin: caused by the protective response of the skin to repeated scratching or rubbing.
Blisters & Crusts: caused by the fluid that oozes from inflamed skin. (Sometimes blisters and crustiness can indict the presence of an infection.)
Which Parts of the Body are Affected by Eczema?
Atopic eczema can affect any part of the body, but the most common areas to be affected are:
- backs or fronts of the knees
- outside or inside of the elbow
- around the neck
Why Do People Get Eczema?
Eczema is not contagious; it is in fact a genetic condition, which means that there is likely to be a family history of either eczema or another “atopic” condition, like hay fever or asthma.
This means that some people are more susceptible to eczema than others; it’s mostly down to genes and to luck.
Parents who have asthma are more likely to have children who suffer from eczema for example, but at least this knowledge means that forewarned is forearmed and parents can take steps to minimise potential triggers early on.
What Causes Flare-ups?
But it’s not just genes involved, there’s also an environmental component to eczema flare-ups.
Attacks or flare-ups - those times when symptoms become suddenly more severe - can be triggered by environmental factors. These include things like dust, pollen, diet, pets, chemicals and other irritants such as soaps and detergents, as well as temperature and stress.
Sometimes the trigger for a flare-up is as simple as a room being too hot and dry or getting sweaty after exercise.
What your individual triggers are will depend on the way your own particular eczema manifests itself but anyone who suffers from flare-ups will want to work out and then avoid whatever it is that sets them off. It can be worth keeping a diary of flare-ups to try to pinpoint the cause.
How Can I Manage Eczema?
Eczema is a long-term, chronic condition, meaning that treatment generally consists of relieving symptoms and managing the health of your skin. Although most children grow out of childhood eczema, not all do and in some cases it can actually develop in adulthood so working out an effective skincare regime to maintain the health of your skin is crucial to reducing the impact eczema has on your life.
How Does Healthy Skin Function?
In order to look after your skin and keep symptoms at bay as far as possible, it’s worth understanding how healthy skin functions and what the difference is with eczematous skin. Healthy skin works as a resilient barrier to protect the body from external infection or irritation. It is made up of a thin outer layer (the epidermis), an elastic one in the middle (the dermis), and a fatty layer at the deepest level (the hypodermis).
Each layer contains skin cells, water and fats, all of which help maintain and protect the condition of the skin. In healthy skin, the cells are well hydrated: this means they are moist and plump and are able to provide effective protection against external irritants, organisms such as bacteria and viruses, as well as making a tough barrier to protect the skin from damage. The skin also needs fats and oils to retain moisture and these act as a kind of glue to bond it all together.
What Happens With Eczematous Skin?
For whatever reason, people who suffer from eczema don’t have as many fats and oils in their skin to make an effective barrier and their skin cells are not hydrated and plump.
This means their skin is prone to drying out and cracking and ultimately become more open to infection and to inflammation.
Everyday substances like soap or detergent can have a very extreme effect on dry sore eczematous skin, stripping the skin of its vital oils and leaving hands sore and red and itchy.
What Is The Itch-Scratch Cycle?
What is known as the Itch-Scratch Cycle explains a good deal about how difficult and frustrating eczema can be to live with. What happens is that poorly protected, dry or damaged skin allows allergens and irritants to enter the body; the body then launches an immune-system response which results in inflammation (redness and swelling). Nerve fibres are activated leading to more itching.
Further scratching of the itch damages the already weak skin barrier and worsens the condition of the skin, leading to more potential irritation, more itching and more chance of infection and reaction to allergens. It is a cycle of itching and scratching and itching and scratching that can only be broken by keeping the skin very well moisturised and protected by oily barriers.