What Is Eczema? Ask The Body Experts

Eczema is common, but how much do you actually know about this itchy skin condition? We get the lowdown on eczema from Dr Adam Friedmann at The Harley Street Dermatology Clinic.

What is eczema?

“Eczema and dermatitis both mean inflammation of the skin and are characterised by redness, swelling, itching and scratch marks. With persistent eczema, regular rubbing of the skin through itching and scratching can also lead to other skin complaints such as thickening of the skin, scaling, and post-inflammatory darkening of the skin,” says Dr Friedmann.

How common is it?

Dr Friedmann explains that it's one of the most common skin complaints. Atopic eczema is the most prevalent type and it often develops with other allergic conditions such as asthma, hay fever or food allergies. It can also run in families and affects approximately 1.5 million adults in the UK.

“Other forms include ‘irritant contact eczema’ – caused by a chemical irritating the skin, such as soap or disinfectants, and ‘allergic contact dermatitis’ – eczema caused by an allergic reaction to something coming into contact with the skin, such as fragrance or hair dye, and can usually be identified by means of a patch test,” says Dr Friedmann.

What are the signs and symptoms of eczema?

“The key feature is that it is itchy!” says Dr Friedmann. Severe eczema is also typically characterised by redness, dryness and swelling and when the skin is inflamed, it can become weepy, crusty and scaly. It can appear anywhere on the body but is usually worse in the body creases, such as the neck or the back of the knees and elbows, and is also often symmetrically distributed.

What causes eczema?

Seasonal changes in the weather can be triggers for atopic eczema, as can certain soaps and detergents, some foods or even stress and illness. Learning what contributes to an outbreak can help to reduce the severity.

How can eczema be treated?

“Although it's incurable, it can be well controlled with medication, so there is no need for it to rule your life,” explains Dr Friedmann. “The treatment can be divided into three basic strategies, depending on severity. Creams such as emollients, soap substitutes or steroids may be suggested, phototherapy – that involves precise doses of ultraviolet light being delivered by a medical UV-machine, or systemic medications – including tablets such as prednisolone, azathioprine, methotrexate and ciclosporin. However, these powerful drugs are reserved for severe eczema.”

If you suspect that you suffer from this skin condition and you’ve yet to see your GP, do so. Treating it early is key – the more severe it becomes, the more difficult it is to control. Here are some tips that can help at home.

- Pick a greasy, non-perfumed product and use two to three times a day, every day. Choose a moisturiser with a pump action, or if you do use a round tub of body cream, try not to double-dip your fingers in the pot – this can cause contamination and possible further infection of the skin.

- Scented body washes and bubble baths are a no-no so you’ll need to switch up your shower-time routine. Use a specific eczema-friendly moisturiser to wash with instead – these are called soap substitutes. Balance Me Super Moisturising Body Wash is formulated with the anti-inflammatory healing herb yarrow, so can help soothe mild eczema. The refreshing, revitalising Greenfrog Botanic Neroli & Lime Bodywash is also gentle enough to use on sensitive skin and eczema.

- Wearing non-rubber gloves (you need vinyl gloves) for chores will really help to protect sensitive hands. Wear them when washing-up or for jobs where you have to use cleaning products.

- Remember to rinse off properly after swimming and apply plenty of moisturiser when dry.

- Choose cotton clothes when shopping – they’ll feel better on your skin than wool and synthetic fabrics.

- It’s hard, but try not to scratch your skin. it might relieve your itch briefly but it will make your skin so much itchier in the long term. Smooth on moisturiser instead.

- Avoid close and personal contact with someone who has an active cold sore as sufferers are at risk of getting a widespread cold sore infection.

- Wash clothes with a non-biological washing powder and use a double rinse cycle to remove detergent from the clothing.

- Keep cool. Overheating can make the skin feel all the more itchy when you have eczema.