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Eczema Symptoms and Treatments

The 14th – 22nd September is National Eczema Week to raise awareness of the National Eczema Society which works to help the 5 million people in the UK affected by the condition.

What is eczema?

Eczema is a dry skin condition in which the skin becomes red, irritated scaly and itchy. In severe cases eczema may cause the skin to split and weep or bleed, and these open sores can lead to infection.

What causes eczema?

The skin is naturally plumped up with water in order to act as a barrier against infection, and this water is kept in place by fats and oils in the skin. People with eczema tend to have a lack of these oils which prevents the skin from retaining water, causing it to dry out and reducing the effectiveness of the protective barrier. As a result the skin becomes very itchy and easily irritated, causing it to crack and become sore. It also means that the skin is much more sensitive to irritants than normal and will react badly to harsh chemicals, perfumes, soaps and detergents.

Eczema symptoms

Since the condition varies so much from person to person there are lots of eczema symptoms to look out for but the most common ones include:

  • Red or inflamed skin
  • Dryness
  • Cracked and broken skin
  • Thick, scaly skin
  • Itchiness
  • Rash, often starting on the creases of your elbows or knees

Types of eczema

There are several types of eczema, each one affecting different parts of the body and with differing symptoms and treatment options.

Atopic eczema - This type of eczema is hereditary – it runs in the family. It is the most common form of eczema and often seen in babies and children, although many will grow out of it by the time they reach 16 years old. The main symptom of atopic eczema is itchiness which can become severe and affect daily life. It’s important to try not to scratch as this is when the skin becomes damaged and prone to infection. You may notice certain things trigger a flare up of your or your child’s atopic eczema, such as soaps, pollen, dust, animal hair and heat, and you can avoid these things to keep skin healthy. If it’s pollen or pet hair it may be worth trying an air purifier to reduce airborne irritants.

Discoid eczma - Discoid eczema appears as coin-shaped discs on the skin, usually beginning very dry and a little bumpy, and then starting to ooze fluid. They are very itchy and can become sore if they get infected. Again it is not clear what causes this kind of eczema but flare-ups can be brought on by irritants such as perfumes, soaps and cosmetics. Eczema symptoms

Contact eczema - This refers to flare ups which only occur as a result of contact with irritants and allergens which your body is sensitive to. Nickel, perfumes, and preservatives and chemicals in cosmetics are just a few of the most common causes of an eczema flare up. The hands tend to be affected most since they are more likely to come into contact with irritants, but you could experience flare ups on parts of your body which do not physically contact the irritant.

Asteatotic eczema - This type of eczema is most common in people over 60 as it usually occurs as a result of a decrease in natural oils in the skin which is quite normal as we get older. Years of cleansing, scrubbing and hot baths or showers tends to dry out the skin, but those with naturally dry or rough skin are particularly at risk of developing Asteatotic eczema. This condition looks a little bit like crazy paving, with dry flakes of skin surrounded by red grooves. Although it only affects the very top layers of skin it can still cause severe soreness and itching. It’s important to hydrate the skin as much as possible to soothe the discomfort and help it heal.

Seborrhoeic eczema - Seborrhoeic eczema occurs in areas of skin with lots of sebaceous (oil) glands. The scalp, face and neck are most commonly affected but other areas which tend to become oily such as the back, armpits, groin and under the breasts. It usually causes the skin to flake and cause thick crusting. It is not clear what causes Seborrhoeic eczema but it is thought that a particular kind of yeast which thrives around the sebaceous glands could be responsible. Although it looks unsightly, seborrhoeic eczema does not cause as much itching and discomfort as many other types of eczema, however since the cause is unknown it can be difficult to avoid flare-ups; when an outbreak does occur antifungal creams and medicated shampoos, or even normal anti-dandruff shampoos if the eczema is mild, will control it.

Gravitational eczema - Gravitational eczema occurs as a result of poor circulation or varicose veins, when tiny blood vessels in the legs break down and cause dark patches beneath the skin which becomes thin and fragile as a result. The skin then becomes vulnerable to ulcers; open sores in the skin which become painful and crusty and which cannot easily heal due to poor blood flow to the area. This type of eczema is more common in later life, particularly in women, and you are more at risk if you have had blood clots or other circulatory problem.

Pompholyx eczema - The main characteristic of pompholyx eczema is blisters on the hands and feet. It is often brought on by stress but can occur as a result of exposure to metal compounds such as nickel or cobalt. Heat and sweat can also bring about the blisters which tend to be very itchy. If the blisters break they ooze fluid for a short while before drying out, leaving the skin prone to peeling.

Eczema Treatments

Your doctor will be able to prescribe medicated creams, emollients and steroids in order to control flare-ups, but since eczema is generally a dry skin condition it’s really important to hydrate the skin as much as possible with gentle moisturisers and cleansers and avoid harsh chemicals that could irritate the skin.