What is eczema?
Eczema is a non-contagious skin condition that causes dry, scaly, itchy red skin. It affects 1 in 5 children and 1 in 12 adults, and commonly affects those also affected by asthma and hayfever. The condition will go through times of being very mild, and times when it is very severe, severe patches are known as flare-ups. There is no cure, although it can be managed with prescribed creams that can help to control flare-ups.
To understand what eczema is, you will need to know the difference between healthy skin and the skin of a person affected by eczema.
Your skin is a barrier that protects your body from infection or irritation, and it has layers. Each layer contains skin cells, water, and fats, all of which help to protect your skin.
Healthy skin cells are full of water, which makes them plump up to form a more effective barrier against damage and infection. The fats and oils in your skin help to retain that water in the skin cells.
Imagine a wall. Your outer skin cells are the bricks and the fats and oils are the mortar that keeps everything together, acting as a seal.
If you have eczema your skin won’t be producing as many fats and oils as it should, and will be less able to retain water. This causes your skin cells to shrink and open up, allowing bacteria to get in.
How is it treated?
Treatments can relieve the symptoms and for many people the condition improves over time.
If you suffer from eczema you may find the following helpful:
- Cut your fingernails short so that damage to your skin is reduced when scratching
- Use moisturising treatments daily
- Use topical corticosteroids for short periods when needed. These are prescribed creams and ointments that reduce swelling, redness, and itchng during flare-ups
You can also prevent a lot of the allergy triggers that can cause a flare-up. Everyday substances can cause your skin to break-down. Soap, bubble bath, and washing-up liquid will all remove oil from your skin, and if you have eczema this can cause a flare-up.
- Switch to unscented washing detergents for your clothes
- Switch to unscented washing-up liquid
- Stop using scented soaps and shampoos, instead opt for unscented products (this includes sunscreen, which can cause nasty reactions especially in children)
These are available in different strengths and you will have heard of some.
- Mild – Hydrocortisone
- Moderate – Clobetasone Butyrate
- Strong – Betamethasone Dipropionate
- Very Strong – Clobetasol Propionate
Mild corticosteroids can be bought over the counter at your local pharmacy, but for stronger treatments you will need a prescription. As your body can become reliant on these creams you will always be prescribed the lowest strength necessary to control your symptoms. You can get topical corticosteroids in different forms:
- Solutions – non-greasy liquids that are easy to apply. These sometimes dry out the skin.
- Lotions – slightly thicker than solutions, these are used to treat larger areas of skin or hairy skin as they’re easy to apply.
- Creams – thicker still than lotions and best for skin that is damaged to the point of weeping.
- Ointments – oily liquids best for treating dry and scaly skin.
- Gels – More solid than ointments and best for treating very hairy areas such as the scalp.
- Mousses – These foam up and are used to treat the scalp.
What are the long-term effects?
Living with a condition that affects your appearance and comfort will have a knock-on effect psychologically. If you have eczema you may have problems with your confidence levels, and if you had eczema as a child you may have experienced bullying at school. It’s also likely that you will have experienced problems sleeping, as you’ll have been disturbed during the night by the constant irritation in your skin.
If you have eczema and need treatment for a flare-up, or for the psychological impacts of your condition, babylon GPs and therapists are available immediately.