What Exactly Is Eczema?
Essentially it's a dry skin condition that can cause the surface to become scaly, red and itchy - in more severe cases it may also cause weeping, crusting or bleeding of the skin. Constant scratching can cause the condition to become even worse, with skin splitting and being left open to infection. The word 'eczema' comes from the Greek word 'ekzein', which means "to boil" - it's not uncommon for skin to look like it's been placed under boiling water, hence the name. Eczema isn't contagious and can't be transferred from one person to the next, although there is evidence to support genetic predisposition to the condition; you're more likely to suffer with eczema if there is a family history.
So What Causes Eczema?
Our skin is made up of a thin outer layer, a fairly elastic middle one and a fatty layer at the deepest level. Each layer contains skin cells, water and fats, all of which help maintain the condition of the skin while protecting it from infection. If you're a sufferer of eczema your skin is likely to not product as much fat and oil as others and will be less able to retain water. The protective barrier is therefore not as good as it should be, gaps open up between skin cells because they're not sufficiently 'plump' and moisture is then lost from the deeper layers - allowing bacteria or irritants to pass through more easily. It's this irritation and lack of moisture that causes skin to become inflamed, irritated, itchy and broken.
Are There Specific Irritants?
Some everyday substances can significantly contribute to breaking down of the skin and removing natural oils, including anything that 'foams' (soap, bubble bath and washing-up liquid.) Because eczema sufferers' skin is prone to drying out and easily damaged, it's more likely to become red and inflamed on contact with substances that are known to irritate - including fragrances, colourants and preservatives. Exposure to water can also cause the skin to become even more irritated, as when it evaporates it takes essential oils involuntary along with it; reducing the time you're in the shower, minimising baths and moisturising as soon as you step out will definitely help. However, each individual will have different triggers and react differently to products, depending upon the severity of their condition and their skin's ability to protect itself.
What About Sports And Physical Activity?
Our sweat, by its very nature, is acidic and can irritate the skin if it's extremely sensitive or has split in certain areas. Eczema can be particularly prolific around the arms, inner elbows and neck where sweat resides - so it's good to be aware of how your skin reacts and how you can minimise the irritation. Although thick deodorants are likely to block the skin and cause irritation of its own, adjusting your diet and avoiding sugary and acidic drinks may significantly help.
Should You Use Steroid Creams?
Topical steriods (applied directly to the skin,) can help control itching and swelling - they're often prescribed by the doctor in various strengths to get the symptoms of eczema under control. However, they also weaken the skin's surface and (when used in the long-term) can become a crutch on which to rely on; they're not intended as a long-term treatment, so should only ever be used when necessary. From my experience, doctors rely on steroid creams far too much and are not willing to offer any alternative; this can cause skin to be so reliant upon steroid creams that it ceases to function normally. The result of which is the need for stronger and more potent creams, causing a never-ending circle of reliance upon super strong lotions and potions that will provide no benefit in the long-term.
So What Alternatives Are Available?
The key, in my experience, is to build up the skin's ability to repair and nourish itself so steroid creams can be phased out. Introducing high potency fish oil tablets into your daily routine can make the world of difference, helping skin to lubricate itself and protect against further infection. Taking nine Lambert's 1100mg caplets a day has revolutionised the way in which my boyfriend's skin is able to take care of itself, removing the need for any form of steriods or topical treatment whatsoever. Integrating simple, fragrance free emulsions into a morning and evening routine will ensure skin is hydrated and as healthy as possible too. It's a long-term plan that requires an investment in both time, money and effort, but we've seen the results pay dividends over the last year or two.
What Products Can I Use To Help?
Although removing reliance on steroids and introducing fish oil tablets has made a huge impact, there's still a need for products to help further moisturise and take care of the skin - without irritating it and causing further problems. The key is to look for products with a minimal amount of fragrance, preservatives, foaming ingredients (anything with 'sulphate' on the end) or colourants in their formula; this will cut out most of the irritants that can make the condition worse. In addition, products that contain urea (which promotes hydration in the skin) will also offer support on a daily basis.
Although I'm in no way medically trained, by trial and error (and through expert consultations) I've been able to significantly help loved ones that have been suffering with this often debilitating skin condition. Doctors often don't understand how to deal with eczema, but talking to the right skin experts that have first hand experience can really help you on your way to a healthier approach. The key thing to remember is that eczema can be controlled; you just need to understand what you're dealing with.
Have you any experience of eczema? Have you found your own way of keeping the condition under control?