Updated 1 December 2020

Eczema – What is it?

Woman scratching hand / eczema

Introduction

Eczema is a very common condition characterised by an irritation or inflammation of the skin. Eczema can also be referred to as  "atopic eczema", "atopic dermatitis" or ‘allergic eczema’. Although this skin condition affects all age groups, it usually appears in early childhood and disappears by the age of 6. More than half of all eczema sufferers show signs of the condition sometime in the first 12 months. Although most children grow out of their eczema, a few may experience severe eczema into adulthood. Eczema is not a contagious disease and so cannot be spread from one person to another.

Common Symptoms of Atopic Eczema

 Common symptoms of eczema include:
  • Itch skin which can vary in severity from person to person
  • Dry, scaley rash which can be red, patchy or cracked skin. The rash can appear anywhere on the body but is common on the face, neck, hands, inner elbows and back of knees
  • The skin may weep with watery fluid
  • The skin may be thickened or leathery

The Causes of Eczema

 Although the actual cause of eczema is unknown, it runs in families and many with eczema also have asthma or hayfever. There are triggers which can make eczema worse such as the following:
  • Foods: dairy, wheat products, eggs, nuts, seafood, citrus, food additives, preservatives and colourings seem to be the commonest.
  • Irritants: chemicals, air-conditioning, cigarette smoke, overheating, sand especially from sand pits
  • Stress
  • dry skin
  • Allergens: moulds, house dust mites, grasses, pets, soaps, shampoos, detergents, plant pollens, foods
It is important to avoid these triggers if found to make your eczema worse or flare-up.

Diagnosing Eczema

A medical doctor would normally diagnose eczema by carrying out a physical examination of the skin in addition to asking a number of questions. Itching is an important symptom of eczema and so if itching is not present, there is a very high chance it is not eczema. Sometimes doctors will conduct investigations but this is not to diagnose eczema but usually to rule out other possibilities.

Eczema Treatments

 The aim of treating eczema is to help heal the skin and prevent further flare-ups. Treatments which can be used include the following:
  • Regular use of moisturiser to protect your skin
  • Creams prescribed by a doctor to treat flare-ups
  • Antihistamines to control itching
  • Keeping your house clean to control and prevent infection
  • Allergy testing to find trigger factors
  • Antibiotics if the eczema becomes infected
  • Ultraviolet light used by dermatologists to control inflammation
  It is important to speak to a doctor to discuss which treatment options are best for your eczema and to try and establish which trigger factors may apply. It is also important to prevent flare-ups by avoiding the triggers for eczema.