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What is it?

The word eczema means to boil over. This is how the eczematous skin often feels and looks as in severe cases blisters erupt releasing liquid. The words eczema and dermatitis are used interchangeably. Endogenous eczema comes from within, is inherited, and someone is more likely to develop it if they also have asthma or hayfever. This kind of eczema is called 'atopic' and first arises in childhood. Contact eczema often occurs for the first time in adulthood and has two forms:

Irritant – caused when something irritates the skin, e.g. chemicals
Allergic – caused by an allergy to something, e.g. nickel that comes into contact with the skin.

What happens?

The skin becomes very dry, itchy, and flaky. Scratching the skin releases chemicals that cause more itching. It also damages the skin allowing bacteria that normally live on the skin to enter the skin causing infection. The skin creases are most often affected in the elbows and behind the knees. The face can be affected too.

Why does it happen?

It's not entirely clear why eczema happens. Atopic eczema runs in families and is believed to be triggered by allergens such as certain foods, pet hairs, house dust-mite dung, and possibly exposure to smoke. Contact eczema is a reaction to something that irritates the skin or the skin becomes allergic to.

Can I stop it?

It's difficult to prevent it happening in the first instance. However, not smoking, managing stress, and keeping your home well ventilated and vacuumed to reduce the house dust mite numbers to a minimum, may help. These measures will certainly help to prevent flare-ups. In addition to this, not scratching, avoiding known triggers, and moisturising the skin regularly throughout the day will help prevent flare-ups. Keeping stress to a minimum helps too. If you feel the need to scratch, gently rub some moisturiser into the skin. This relieves the itch but prevents skin damage and further itching.

Here are the things to remember:

  • Don't scratch
  • Reduce stress
  • Avoid known triggers
  • Moisturise everyday
  • Use treatment as recommended

Should I see doctor?

Yes, to get the diagnosis confirmed and to get the best advice on treatment.

Treatments

Moisturise, moisturise, and then moisturise some more. Keeping the skin well moisturised prevents it from becoming dry, cracked, and itchy. Steroid creams are safe and effective when used appropriately. They are often combined with an antibiotic cream to kill off the bacteria that has been shown in research to be responsible for triggering flare-ups. Acupuncture, homeopathy, relaxation can all help. Evening primrose oil supplements and fish oils e.g. cod liver oil, work well too, as does tea-tree oil in a gel or diluted form when applied to the skin.

This material is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for the medical advice of your doctor or any other health care professional. Always consult with your physician if you are in any way concerned about your health.

Revised May 30 2002
© 2003 SLPM Self care Ltd.

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