15 million people in the UK live with eczema. That’s over 20%, that’s more than one in five people, that’s more than all the people living in London, Birmingham and Manchester combined. It’s one of the most common skin conditions out there. But what exactly is it and why does it look different on other people?
We know all about dealing with eczema on a daily basis, so we’ve put together this complete guide to help you manage your eczema and hopefully teach you a thing or two along the way.
The good news is that eczema is very manageable and treatable, so let’s take a detailed look at what eczema is; its different types, symptoms, and treatment, and take control of this incredibly common condition.
Eczema: What is it?
Eczema is a really common skin condition where patches of skin get itchy, crack and become inflamed and rough, some people even get blisters. It can be really uncomfortable and anybody who has it would love for it to disappear.
*Puts on lab coat* The most common type of eczema is called ‘atopic dermatitis’. Atopic refers to a person's likelihood that they have allergies like hayfever and asthma, these are often linked to people with Eczema. ‘Dermatitis’ refers to skin inflammation. So these two together sum up eczema.
There are five other types of eczema too, all with their own telltale signs, but they also all share common symptoms like; redness, dry skin, scaly rashes and itching.
Now for the bad news - there’s currently no cure for eczema, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a lost cause. There are so many ways to manage your eczema by treating it on time, with the right products and avoiding irritants. The main goal here is to stop the itching so that we leave it alone and allow it to heal.
Eczema usually develops in people under the age of 5 years, but according to the National Institute for Health Research, 60% of children won’t have any signs of eczema by the time they hit their teens. But that leaves 40% of us who don’t shake it off and those of us who develop symptoms later in life.
Oh and by the way, eczema is not contagious, you can’t catch it or spread it.
How to know if I have eczema?
Eczema is one of those conditions that seems to affect people in a whole wide range of ways (some have multiple types of eczema at the same time), so there’s no real guaranteed way to self-diagnose, but according to the National Eczema Association, there are some things to keep an eye out for:
- Persistent itch
- Inflamed and discoloured skin
- Rough, scaly, or leathery patches of skin
- Sensitive and dry skin
- Areas of swelling
- Crusting or oozing
The itch is the trademark symptom of eczema. It can be mild, but honestly, in most cases, the itch can be severe and lead to inflamed and discoloured skin. The itch can get so bad that people scratch it until it bleeds, this is known as the dreaded ‘itch-scratch’.
Skin tone also plays a part, on light skin eczema looks red and on darker skin eczema can be brown-purple or grey.
You might have all the above-listed symptoms of eczema or just a few, you might have them all the time or they can come and go, but the important thing to do is to go see your doctor. Doctors see this type of thing all the time and they’ll give you a treatment that's perfectly suited to you.
Eczema: What are the causes?
Okay, we know that eczema is not contagious, but that’s kinda all we really know for sure at this point. Some experts believe that eczema is caused by a combination of environmental and hereditary issues. Genetics, issues with our immune system and exposure to irritants and infections are the suspected guilty parties.
What are the different types of eczema?
We mentioned earlier that there are six different types of eczema, let’s take a deeper look at these and their symptoms.
1. Contact dermatitis:
This is the type of eczema that forms when you come into contact with allergens or substances that your immune system attacks.
- Allergic contact dermatitis: This is your immune system’s reaction to something that you’re allergic to like metal or latex.
- Irritant contact dermatitis: This is triggered when a chemical such as bleach irritates your skin.
Symptoms of contact dermatitis
Watch out for the common symptoms of contact dermatitis:
- Skin turning red and itchy
- Fluid-filled blisters that can ooze and crust over
- Thickening of skin over time with a scaly or leathery texture.
2. Dyshidrotic eczema:
This is such a painful form of eczema - tiny blisters form on the palms of people’s hands and soles of their feet, making doing almost anything tortuous. Being exposed to nickel and chromium salt is one of the ways that causes dyshidrotic eczema, but it’s also believed that damp hands and feet, as well as stress and allergies, can cause it too.
Symptoms of dyshidrotic eczema
of the common symptoms of dyshidrotic eczema are:
- Fluid-filled blisters that itch or hurt
- Flaky, cracked, or scaly skin
3. Seborrhoeic dermatitis:
Seborrhoeic dermatitis is an inflammatory reaction to Malassezia yeast, which normally lives on the skin’s surface. In adults, this usually forms where the skin is oilie.
Symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis
Look out for these symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis:
- Red patches around sides of nose, ears, scalp chest, armpits, and groin
- Greasy scaling
4. Nummular Eczema:
This comes about as a reaction to trauma to our skin from chemical burns, scrapes or insect bites. Unluckily for us, it can also develop in reaction to other forms of eczema - when it rains it pours. It usually shows up as circular patches of skin that can be itchy, crusted, and scaly.
Symptoms of nummular eczema:
- Coin shaped lesions (which sometimes ooze or crust over) on hands, arms, legs and chest
- Burning and itching
- Red, pink or brown inflamed and scaly skin around the lesions
This is another one of those forms of eczema that’s found with other types of eczema, usually atopic and contact dermatitis and it tends to affect women more than men. It is almost always caused by a localised itch, from bug bites, nerve injury or dry skin.
Symptoms of neurodermatitis:
- Itchy, scaly patches of skin on forearms, wrists, lower legs and head
- Discolouration that’s red, brown, or grey
6. Stasis dermatitis:
Those of us with poor circulation need to keep an eye out for this one, particularly if the poor circulation affects our lower legs.
This type of eczema usually occurs in people who have poor blood circulation, typically in the lower legs.
Symptoms of stasis dermatitis:
- An aching or heavy feeling after long periods of standing or sitting
- Higher risk of developing contact dermatitis
What triggers eczema flare-ups?
Okay, so now we know that eczema comes in lots of different ways, but what actually causes it? While eczema flare-ups can be caused by a whole range of things there are some common environmental factors that are responsible. Here are some of the most likely culprits:
- Irritants: These include things that can annoy our skin like; washing liquids, shampoos, soaps, detergents, juices from fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats.
- Microbes: These include certain fungi, viruses, and bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus.
- Certain foods: These can include dairy products, peanuts, eggs, soy, wheat, nuts, and seeds - so giving veganism a try might help.
- Allergens: These can include pollen, dust mites, moulds, pet fur - a bad hayfever season can make eczema worse.
- Extreme temperatures: Extremely hot and cold temperatures, high and low humidity and sweat from exercise can trigger eczema.
- Certain materials: In some people, eczema flare-ups are also caused as a result of wearing clothes made from synthetic fabric or wool.
- Hormonal changes: Women may notice increased eczema flare-ups during pregnancy or at certain times during their menstrual cycle.
- Stress: While it is not a direct cause of eczema, many people find their eczema symptoms worsen due to stress.
Is there any cure for eczema?
Technically there is no cure for eczema, but the medicines and therapeutic treatments are so good that the majority of people with eczema are able to live pain and irritant-free lives.
The experts over at National Eczema Association, recommend that you see your doctor because they can prescribe the following medications:
- Prescription topical medications such as corticosteroid creams and ointments. These can help reduce the itch and allow the real healing to begin
- Immunosuppressants like tacrolimus reduce the immune response that causes itchy red skin
- Biologic drugs
- Phototherapy uses ultraviolet light that heals eczema rash
- Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine can also help too
What are some tips for reducing eczema outbreaks?
For most types of eczema, managing flare-ups comes down to practising these basics and working them into your daily routine:
- Avoid any known triggers and preventing exposure
- Bathe or shower daily. Afterwards, gently dab your skin with a soft towel. Avoid rubbing
- Moisturise your skin daily with rich, oil-based ointments or emollients. These form a protective barrier against harsh environmental elements. It is better to moisturise immediately after a shower or bath
- Avoid scratching. This could worsen the symptoms and cause an infection.
- Use prescription medications routinely as prescribed
- Use fragrance-free cleansers, makeup and other skincare items
- Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes. Try to opt for loose-fitting clothes made from soft fibres like cotton, this lets our skin breathe
- Wear protective clothing and gloves whenever you handle irritants like chemicals
We’ve covered a lot in this article and used a lot of technical, scientific terms, but we can sum it all up by reminding ourselves that eczema is an incredibly common skin condition that affects millions of us - atopic dermatitis is the most common type. Even though there’s no cure at the moment, there are lots of treatments and medicines available. And breakouts can be easily managed with some lifestyle changes and known triggers.