Eczema: What is it and how to treat it

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In the UK, around one in five children and one in 12 adults has eczema – also known as dermatitis – according to the National Eczema Society, which adds up to more than six million. And as the charity highlights, it’s a very individual condition, ranging from the occasional patch of dry, irritated skin for some, to a chronic, severe and deeply distressing health problem for others.

It doesn’t just affect people physically either: as with many skin conditions, eczema can have a significant and complex psychological and emotional impact. This year’s National Eczema Week (September 17-25) will focus on this theme, shining a light on the often ‘hidden’ aspects of living with a skin disorder, how it can affect self-esteem, relationships, careers, and even be linked with depression and anxiety.

But what exactly is eczema, and what do people need to know about living with it?


Eczema is more than ‘just dry skin’

Eczema causes sore, itchy patches of skin, but the condition is more than simply ‘dry skin’. Severe eczema can affect large areas and be very painful, resulting in inflamed skin that cracks and bleeds. “Dry skin is a very common problem caused by skin dehydration and loss of natural skin oils, which can be due to many factors including a lack of humidity, using harsh soaps, the ageing process and medications.

Eczema or dermatitis is a condition that leads to dry skin as well, however there is an accompanying inflammation that leads to redness, more severe itching and in severe cases, blistering, fissuring and oozing,” explains Dr Noor Almaani, consultant dermatologist at The Private Clinic of Harley Street.

Dr Almaani notes there are a number of types of eczema, the most common being atopic eczema. “This usually occurs in genetically susceptible individuals and is commonly associated with asthma and hay fever. It usually presents itself during childhood,” she adds.

Other types include asteatotic eczema, which usually occurs in the elderly and typically over the shins; allergic contact dermatitis, where eczema occurs at the site of contact with a substance an individual is allergic to; irritant contact dermatitis, when symptoms flare up on areas that come into contact with irritant substances – such as certain cosmetics or washing powders; and pompholyx eczema, which causes an itchy, “bubble-like rash on the hands and sometimes feet that worsens in hot weather”.

Eczema tends to be more common in infants and children, many of whom ‘grow out’ of it. Though, as Dr Almaani notes, it can recur later in life – and can also occur for the first time ever in adulthood, and how chronic and severe eczema is can vary significantly from individual to individual.

There’s no cure but eczema can be managed, so flare-ups can be kept to a minimum, while specialists can advise on coping with severe symptoms.

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