Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a relatively minor chronic irritation of the skin that affects about 3% of the general population.
With eczema there is an inherited hypersensitivity – not allergy – to certain substances or conditions. These include excessive dryness of the skin, heavy sweating, fatigue and stress. People with eczema are likely to develop hay fever, allergic asthma or, when they get cold sores, accompanying viral infections.
Eczema has distinct forms, at specific stages of life. Each stage comes in cycles of flare-ups, remissions and, often, gradual disappearance. Its duration is different with every individual case. Some people have eczema all their lives, while others develop it at random.
Infants have eczema three times more often than adults – and the condition differs. Dry, red patches appear on the scalp, forehead, neck, arms, legs and groin. Tiny blisters may develop, open and ooze fluid, then form crusts. These blisters are not common in older children suffering from eczema. Their patches of dry skin may have small bumps and appear on the elbows, back of knees, back of neck, wrists and face, especially the eyelids. Eyes are common site of eczema in adults. Other areas affected by eczema in adults include the hands, arms and legs.
While eczema can't be cured, its flare-ups can often be prevented by avoiding triggers, including temperature extremes, stress, skin infections, heavy perspiration and various allergens.
Infants who feed exclusively on breast milk for at least 6 months are less likely to develop eczema. Eggs and fish, common triggers, should not be offered to infants until they are a year old. Also, shield infants from allergens such as smoke, pet dander, mites, molds and pollen.
Older children and adults should keep their baths short and use only lukewarm water. It's also recommended that they use a mild bar soap that does not contain antibacterial additives.
Be sure the air where you live and work is moist – this may mean using a humidifier in the winter. And staying out of the sun, winter or summer, may also help.
Stress management is equally important in preventing eczema flare-ups. Exercise, meditation and yoga can all help reduce stress.
When eczema flares up, specific treatment is necessary. Among the medical remedies are ointments containing hydrocortisone. Other types of steroids may be applied to the trouble spots or, in severe cases, taken internally. Antibiotics are sometimes prescribed to eliminate bacteria and prevent secondary infection. (Germs may invade through scratches and tiny openings in the inflamed skin.)
Some alternative eczema treatments include:
- Acupressure – While it won't cure eczema, it can relieve tension that can bring on flare-ups.
- Herbs – Chinese foxglove and licorice are effective anti-inflammatories; peony can boost the immune system; and evening primrose oil helps control itching.
- Baths – Soaking in a bath of 1 cup of table salt per tubful of water can be soothing to the skin.