Eczema – causes, symptoms, types and treatment

The term ‘eczema’ refers to a set of skin conditions caused by inflammation. It affects large section of human population, not bypassing any age.

Symptoms of eczema

Most people develop atopic dermatitis before the age of 5. Half of those who develop the condition in childhood continue to have symptoms as an adult, though these symptoms are often different to those experienced by children.

People with the condition will often experience periods of time where their symptoms will flare up or worsen, followed by periods of time where their symptoms will improve or clear up.

  • Patches of chronically itchy, dry, thickened skin, usually on the hands, neck, face, and legs (but it can occur anywhere).
  • In children, the inner creases of the knees and elbows are often involved.
  • If scratched, dry patches of skin and open sores with crusts may develop and may get infected.

Adults who developed atopic dermatitis as a child but no longer experience the condition may still have dry or easily irritated skin, hand eczema, and eye problems.

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Causes of eczema

The specific cause of eczema remains unknown, but it is believed to develop due to a combination of hereditary (genetic) and environmental factors.

The most common type of eczema – atopic dermatitis – resembles an allergy. But the skin irritation, which is more often seen in children rather than adults, is not an allergic reaction.

Children are more likely to develop eczema if a parent has had it or another atopic disease. If both parents have an atopic disease, the chances increase further.

Environmental factors are also known to bring out the symptoms of eczema. These include:

  • Irritants – soaps, detergents, shampoos, disinfectants, juices from fresh fruits, meats, or vegetables
  • Allergens – dust mites, pets, pollens, mold, dandruff
  • Microbes – bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, viruses, certain fungi
  • Hot and cold temperatures – hot weather, high and low humidity, perspiration from exercise
  • Foods – dairy products, eggs, nuts and seeds, soy products, wheat
  • Stress – it is not a cause of eczema but can make symptoms worse
  • Hormones – women can experience worsening of eczema symptoms at times when their hormone levels are changing, for example during pregnancy and at certain points in their menstrual cycle

eczem

Types

There are many different types of eczema. This article will predominantly focus on atopic dermatitis. Other variants include:

  • Allergic contact eczema (dermatitis) – a skin reaction following contact with a substance that the immune system recognizes as foreign
  • Contact eczema – a localized reaction where the skin has come into contact with an allergen
  • Dyshidrotic eczema – irritation of skin on palms of hands and soles of feet characterized by blisters
  • Neurodermatitis – scaly patches of skin on head, forearms, wrists, and lower legs caused by a localized itch such as an insect bite
  • Nummular eczema – circular patches of irritated skin that can be crusted, scaling, and itchy
  • Seborrheic eczema – oily, scaly yellowish patches of skin, usually on scalp and face
  • Stasis dermatitis – skin irritation on lower legs, usually related to circulatory problems

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Treatments

There is no cure for eczema. Treatment for the condition aims to heal the affected skin and prevent flaring of the symptoms. Doctors will suggest a plan of treatment based around a patient’s age, symptoms, and current state of health.

For some people, eczema goes away over time, and for others, it remains a lifelong condition.

There are numerous things that people with eczema can do to support skin health and alleviate symptoms, such as:

  • Taking regular warm baths
  • Applying moisturizer within 3 minutes of bathing to “lock in” moisture
  • Moisturizing every day
  • Wearing cotton and soft fabrics, avoiding rough, scratchy fibers, and tight-fitting clothing
  • Using mild soap or a non-soap cleanser when washing
  • Air drying or gently patting skin dry with a towel, rather than rubbing skin dry after bathing
  • Avoiding rapid changes of temperature and activities that make you sweat (where possible)
  • Learning individual eczema triggers and avoiding them
  • Using a humidifier in dry or cold weather
  • Keeping fingernails short to prevent scratching from breaking skin

Even though the condition itself is not presently curable, there should be a particular treatment plan to suit each case. Even after an area of skin has healed, it is important to keep looking after it, as it may easily become irritated again.

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