Eczema, or dermatitis, is the name given to a group of skin conditions that affects around six million people in the UK.
Although there are different types of eczema – atopic, contact dermatitis, seborrhoeic, discoid – they all involve having patches of inflamed, itchy, red skin. The most common type is atopic eczema.
National Eczema Week, starting 10 September, aims to raise awareness of this common skin condition which affects one in five children and one in twelve adults in the UK.
Atopic is the term used for allergic conditions which have a genetic basis, such as atopic eczema, hay fever and asthma.
Sixty per cent of children with atopic eczema develop the condition before the age of one, and 85 per cent by the age of five.
People with atopic eczema have dry, red, itchy skin. Sometimes, ‘flare-ups’ occur, where the condition worsens, the skin become unbearably itchy, and blisters. The skin may also be moist, and ooze fluid. Repeatedly scratching the intensely itchy skin may cause it to become infected, or to thicken.
Atopic eczema can occur anywhere on the body, but often affects the parts of the body where the skin creases, such as inside the elbows and at the backs of the knees.
In children it is more common around the joints on the arms and legs and in babies on the face, scalp and on the outer surfaces of the arms and legs.
Although the exact cause of atopic eczema is unknown, both genes and environmental factors are thought to influence whether someone develops the condition.
Atopic eczema often runs in families and people who have often have another atopic condition such as asthma or hay fever.
There are many everyday things that can trigger or exacerbate eczema. Known eczema triggers include stress, house dust mite, pollens and certain foods.
Soaps, detergents, products containing perfumes, woollen and nylon clothing or even a change of seasons can also make eczema worse.
Some triggers may be more difficult to identify, particularly where foods are involved. Patients may be asked by their GP to keep a food diary to help determine what is triggering the eczema.
Identifying and avoiding triggers and adopting a skin care routine can help to allevaite symptoms and reduce flare-ups.
Eczema cannot be cured, but there are a number of ways to alleviate the symptoms and help people manage the condition.
These include using emollients – or moisturisers – daily, to help the skin retain its moisture, prevent it from cracking. There are many types – creams, ointments, lotions, bath oils – but doctors can advise patients on what’s most suitable for them.
Doctors can prescribe steroid creams and antihistamine tablets to help alleviate redness and ease itching. If these are used for too long or in too high a concentration, they can cause thinning of the skin, but a doctor can give the best advice on how and when to use them.
Oral and topical antibiotics may be prescribed for infections which may arise.
GPs can also refer patients with eczema to a dermatologist for further treatment options, including UV therapy, wet wrapping, oral steroids and calcineurin inhibitors.
Calcineurin inhibitors in the form of creams or ointments may help people with severe eczema who don’t respond to other treatments. Unlike steroids, these reduce inflammation without thinning the skin, but may have other side-effects.