Eczema, which can also be known as 'dermatitis', is the name given to a group of skin conditions. Skin affected by eczema is characterised by a dry, itchy, red and inflamed rash which can feel hot to the touch. If scratched, the skin can become infected and can develop weeping blisters or 'pustules'. These cause the skin to become crusty. In severe cases, skin can become broken and red raw. Scratching can cause further crusting and even bleeding. The areas of skin commonly affected by eczema are the scalp, face, neck, bends of the knees, elbows, hands and wrists.

Eczema affects approximately 10% of the population in Britain. It can affect people of all ages but is particularly common in children. It can run in families and often affects those who also suffer from asthma or hay fever. It is not an infectious condition.

Causes

Different types of eczema have different causes. The most common form of eczema, which is known as 'atopic eczema' or 'atopic dermatitis', is genetically passed on from generation to generation. People who suffer from this type of eczema are also likely to suffer from other allergic conditions such as asthma or hay fever.Other types of eczema may be triggered by allergies. An allergy is when the body produces an adverse reaction to a foreign substance known as an 'allergen'. Allergens can include house dust mites and their excrement, animal fur, fabrics, washing powders, soaps, certain foods, heat, chemicals, yeast and metals.Later on in life eczema can be caused by poor circulation. This type of eczema is known as 'varicose eczema' and affects the lower legs.

Avoiding Eczema

  • use non-biological washing powder instead of biological varieties and avoid fabric softners and softening sheetsavoid contact with chemical agents such as detergents, perfumed soaps and bath additiveshypo-allergenic cosmetics may cause less irritationdo not scratch. Scratching can make eczema worse and can cause infection.Keep your nails short if you are likely to scratch during the night
  • wear cool, cotton clothing and use cotton bed linen because cotton is less likely to cause irritation compared to man-made fibres and wool

Treatment

There is no cure for eczema but it can be controlled by medicines. There are many treatments available, some are only available on prescription but others can be bought over the counter at a pharmacy. Many people try many products before finding one that best suits them.Emollients soften, soothe and hydrate the skin. The skin needs moisture to remain soft and supple. Emollients help to moisturize the skin. They are available from pharmacies as ointments, creams, lotions, sprays, washes, shower gels and bath additives. Topical Steroids are steroid medicines that are applied directly to the skin. They help to suppress inflammation. They are available in four different strengths. Some mild forms are available over the counter from pharmacies but these must not be applied to the face. Others are available on prescription.Oral steroids, which are taken by mouth, can also be prescribed in severe cases of eczema.In response to allergens, the body's defence system releases a chemical called histamine. This chemical can cause inflammation. Antihistamines counteract the effects of histamine helping to relieve eczema. They are available in tablet, capsule and liquid form. Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness.

Additional Information

For additional information about eczema, contact The National Eczema Society, 163 Eversholt Street, London NW1 1BU. Tel: 0171 388 4097. Fax: 0171 388 5882. Website address: www.eczema.org.