Eczema (also known as dermatitis) is a dry skin condition. It is a highly individual condition which varies from person to person and comes in many different forms. It is not contagious so don't worry, you cannot catch it from someone else.
In mild cases of eczema, the skin is dry, scaly, red and itchy. In more severe cases there may be weeping, crusting and bleeding. Constant scratching causes the skin to split and bleed and leaves it open to infection.
Eczema affects people of all ages, but is primarily seen in children and untreated adults. Those who “grow out” of their eczema during early childhood may see it recur in later life.
Atopic eczema is a genetic condition based on the interaction between several genes and environmental factors. In most cases there will be a family history of either eczema or one of the other ‘atopic’ conditions i.e. asthma or hay fever. Flare-ups can be devastating and feel painful and uncomfortable. Atopic dermatitis often requires daily attention to keep flare-ups under control. “Atopic” refers to the body’s increased sensitivity to allergens or irritants. “Dermatitis” refers to the inflamed skin.
About Our Skin
To understand what eczema is and what causes it, it helps to know something about the differences between healthy skin and skin affected by eczema.
Our skin provides a strong, effective barrier that protects the body from infection or irritation. Skin is made up of a thin outer layer, an elastic one in the middle, and a fatty layer at the deepest level. Each layer contains skin cells, water and fats, all of which help maintain and protect the condition of the skin.
Healthy, supple skin protects you. If yours gets too dry, it may not be able to block out tiny bacteria or allergens that cause eczema. Healthy skin cells are plumped up with water, forming a protective barrier against damage and infection. Fats and oils in the skin help retain moisture, maintain body temperature and prevent harmful substances or bacteria from entering our bodies.
If you have eczema, your skin may not produce as much fats and oils as other people’s and will be less able to retain water. The protective barrier is therefore not as protective as it should be. Gaps open between the skin cells because they are not sufficiently plump with water.
Moisture is then lost from the deeper layers of the skin, allowing bacteria or irritants to pass through more easily. Some everyday substances contribute to breaking down the skin. Soap, bubble bath and washing-up liquid, for example, will remove oil from anyone’s skin, but if you have eczema your skin breaks down more easily, quickly becoming irritated, cracked and inflamed.
Because it is prone to drying out and is easily damaged, skin with eczema is more liable to become red and inflamed on contact with substances that are known to irritate or cause an allergic reaction.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Your doctor can tell if you have eczema based on your symptoms, medical and family history, and what seems to trigger your outbreaks. You may need to follow up and see a dermatologist, which is a doctor who specializes in skin conditions.
There are no tests to prove that you have eczema. But your doctor may try a skin patch tests to see if certain foods or products cause your skin to rash.
Work with your doctor to find the right treatments for you. Your symptoms, age, family history, other health problems, and lifestyle help you find treatments that work. Most eczema treatments give you short-term relief, and must be administered regularly.
There are many things that could set off an eczema flare. You may not have the same triggers as someone else. It will benefit you to figure out what causes your skin to react.
Dry skin. If your skin gets too dry, it can become rough and itchy. It might even crack. That can let bacteria or allergens inside. Dry skin is a common eczema trigger for many people. Extreme changes in temperature can stress your skin as well.
Tips: Keep your skin moist, especially in winter, when the air can be very dry. Use a humidifier to moisten the air in your bedroom when you sleep. Apply body lotion to damp skin after you get out of the shower or bath. Soak in a warm bath with small amounts of baking soda, bath oil, or colloidal oatmeal to ease eczema itching and moisten your skin.