A Guide To Treating Eczema
If you’re dealing with the dry, itchy skin symptoms of eczema, you’re not alone—an estimated 30 percent of the US population reports suffering from occasional bouts of eczema. Although there is no cure for eczema, the condition can be successfully managed by avoiding triggers, soothing irritated, red skin as quickly as possible, and maintaining a good skin regimen that includes regular moisturizing.
What is Eczema?
Eczema refers to several related skin conditions that cause red, itchy, dry, crusted, weeping, scaly, bumpy or thickened patches of skin. Such patches most commonly appear on the face, hands and feet, or in the creases behind elbows and knees, though they can show up in other places as well.
The condition is not contagious, and although it is most common in babies and infants, it can happen to anyone. Eczema can cause small breaks in the skin, compromising its barrier function, wherein the top layer of skin protects the body from external irritants. For this reason, people with eczema may be more susceptible to fungal and bacterial skin infections.
Causes of Eczema
The exact causes of eczema have not been pinpointed, but there appear to be several commonalities. The condition, which often occurs alongside asthma or hay fever, seems to run in some families, suggesting that genetics plays a role. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, eczema is more common in women than in men, in developed countries, in cold climates, and among people with food allergies.
People with eczema may experience an itch/scratch cycle, in which scratching eczema causes damaged skin that leads to more inflammation and even itchier results.
Patches of eczema form in response to triggers that vary from patient to patient—what causes you to react may not be the same for another person. Some common triggers include:
- Irritants. This category includes shampoos, soaps, fabric softeners and detergents; disinfectants such as chlorine; and juices from certain fruits, vegetables, and meats.
- Allergens. Environments that cause allergies can also cause eczema to flare. Watch out for dust, mold, mildew, animal fur and dander, feathers, and seasonal pollen.
- Microbes. Bacteria, viruses, and certain fungi can agitate eczema. Bacteria may create a film on the skin that blocks sweat glands and interferes with the skin’s ability to regulate itself.
- Weather. Hot weather, as well as weather that is very dry or very moist can cause eczema. In addition, sweat that stays on the skin after exercise can be a trigger.
- Food allergies. Many people with eczema are also have a food allergy that can trigger the condition. Common food allergies include dairy, nuts and seeds, soy, wheat, and eggs.
- Stress. Stress can trigger and exacerbate eczema worse.
- Hormones. Women particularly may experience fluctuations in their eczema linked to high and low levels of hormones in the body.
- Sweat. Moisture and heat may exacerbate eczema, especially in areas like the insides of the arms and behind the knees.
Caring for eczema
A good skincare regimen is the cornerstone of eczema treatment. Maintaining healthy, properly moisturized skin helps keep irritants out and reduces the symptoms of eczema by supporting the skin’s natural barrier function.
- Bath routine. Bathing or showering regularly in lukewarm water, and then applying a non-irritating moisturizer within three minutes of gently toweling off to lock in moisture helps replenish skin and restore its barrier function. Avoid harsh soaps and detergents, which may damage or dry out skin. In addition, a good bathing routine allows skin to be more receptive to any medication placed on the skin. Some patients find weekly baths with soothing salts, colloidal oatmeal, or even a half cup of bleach (to reduce bacteria) to be helpful.
- Prevention. Each eczema patient has a unique list of triggers. Avoiding those triggers, and wearing soft, loose, non-wool clothing can help prevent eczema from developing.
- Moisturizers. Returning moisture to the skin is crucial for treating eczema and its fiery itch. Look for hypoallergenic formulas with at least 1% colloidal oatmeal, an FDA recognized ingredient for the treatment of the symptoms of eczema. Advanced treatment moisturizers may contain over 1% colloidal oatmeal.
- Steroids. Corticosteroid creams, prescribed by a doctor, can help control itching and inflammation, and doctors consider them part of the first line of defense against eczema. While safe when applied correctly, if over-applied these creams can cause skin thinning, irritation, and stretch marks. In severe cases, doctors may prescribe oral steroids. There are differing viewpoints on the pros and cons of using steroids to treat eczema, so be sure to discuss any concerns in detail with your doctor.
- Natural remedies. For those that don’t want to use steroids, or turn to them as a last line of defense, there are some promising natural alternatives. Preliminary studies published in Phytomedicine and Arch Dermatology suggest that indigo extract is useful in treating skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Similar studies suggest that colloidal oatmeal, applied to the skin as a lotion or bath, reduces itch and soothes rough skin in eczema patients. Extracts of the sophora japonica tree are a component of many skin preparations used in Chinese Herbal Medicine. A recent study found these compounds to be effective in treating eczema.
- Antihistamines. Over the counter antihistamines, such as Benadryl, may be helpful in reducing itchiness. Since many antihistamines cause drowsiness, they are best taken at bedtime.
- Phototherapy. Simple phototherapy exposes skin to controlled doses of sunlight, or to certain frequencies of UVA and UVB rays. Hawaii and other locations along the same latitude help many treat skin inflammation naturally because the UVB rays, as well as the temperature and humidity there, are especially conducive to healing. While effective in controlling the symptoms of eczema, long-term exposure can cause premature skin aging and increase the risk of skin cancer.
- Stress reduction. Since stress can exacerbate eczema, and eczema can cause stress and embarrassment in patients, treating symptoms of stress with therapy and relaxation can be helpful to many patients.
Although there is still much about eczema that is not understood, the good news is that it can be successfully managed. It may take a long process of trial-and-error to find what works best for you, but persistence is essential. By identifying and avoiding eczema triggers, bathing gently and moisturizing daily, and using topical treatments, you will be able to minimize discomfort and speed skin’s natural healing process.