Eczema – What You Need to Know

Do you suffer from dry, itchy, sore or cracked skin? You may be experiencing eczema. It’s important to understand this condition so that you can manage it to improve its symptoms for a better quality of life.

What is Eczema?

The skin is the largest organ in the human body. It provides a protective barrier to the outside world for every other body system.

Eczema is a common type of dermatitis (a group of conditions that cause inflammation to the skin) that causes dryness, itching, and irritation; this condition disrupts the integrity of the skin and weakens its barrier function.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, eczema is a complex disease of the skin, most likely caused by the interaction of a person’s genes and their environment. As many as 10% of adults and up to 20% of babies suffer from eczema at some point in their lifetime. Almost half of these babies will outgrow the condition.  

The most common form of eczema is atopic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis most commonly appears as dry, red patches of skin, especially on the wrists and ankles, behind the knees, and in the elbow creases, though it can appear elsewhere on the body as well. Small children with eczema may suffer from extreme dermatitis on the face and neck. The skin can also become thickened in the affected areas. People with darker skin tones may experience dermatitis as brown, ashy, or purple areas on the skin, as well as small bumps.

Some other forms of eczema (dermatitis) include:

  • Contact – a direct allergic reaction to substances like latex, nickel, bleach, detergents, poisonous plants, etc. It causes itchy or burning bumps on the skin (hives), fluid-filled blisters, and scaly or leathery skin.
  • Dyshidrotic – causes multiple tiny itchy blisters on the fingers, toes, palms of the hands and soles of the feet. The skin can flake, scale, and crack. More common in women, it can be caused by stress, allergies, dampness, and contact sensitivity.
  • Discoid or Nummular – causes itchy, circular patches on the arms, chest, back or legs, and is triggered by dry skin, a reaction to chemicals or metals, or an insect bite.
  • Seborrheic – causes oily, scaly patching producing flakes like dandruff and can affect the scalp, hairline, eyebrows, nose, groin, armpits, under the breasts, and upper back. It often comes and goes with cold, dry weather. It can also be triggered by hormones, chemicals, certain medical conditions, and some medicines.

Causes of Eczema

There are several triggers and causes of eczema, but its mechanism is not yet completely understood. What is understood is that the skin of an eczema sufferer doesn’t retain moisture properly, and easily becomes dry and irritated. This causes the body to release certain chemicals into the skin, and these exacerbate the problem by worsening the irritation and causing itching. Scratching is counter-productive, creating a vicious cycle and compromising the integrity of the skin.

In most cases, eczema arises due to an overactive immune system that produces an inflammatory response to topical allergens or irritants. These can include soaps and other skin cleansers, detergents, shampoos, lotions and creams, perfumes, and other irritants. People with hay fever and asthma are at significantly higher risk of experiencing this type of dermatitis.

There are several risk factors for developing eczema, and these include (but are not limited to):

  • A family history of eczema – having a close relative (e.g., parent) who suffers from eczema increases your risk of having it too
  • Stress
  • Allergens such as dust mites, moulds, pet dander or fur, and pollens
  • Food sensitivities or allergies
  • Very dry skin
  • Heat
  • Chemicals; preservatives and artificial colours, detergents, etc
  • Sand
  • Woollen or prickly fabrics, such as carpet
  • A cold, damp environment
  • A hot, humid environment

While it can be extremely uncomfortable and even unsightly, eczema is not caused by a virus, bacteria, fungus, or parasite – and it is not infectious or contagious.

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How to Deal with It

If you suffer from eczema or dermatitis, it’s important to see your doctor for a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment strategy.

For many people, eczema comes and goes – and there are several things you can do to help yourself when symptoms arise.

  • Avoid known allergens where possible. E.g., wear non-latex washing-up gloves, use soap-free body wash, use anti-insect sprays when outside, etc.
  • Shower or bath in lukewarm or warm but not hot water. Gently pat your skin dry and ensure areas such as under the breasts, in the groin and armpits, and between the toes are properly dried.
  • Moisturise your skin when you get out of the bath or shower using a rich, oil-based cream to seal in moisture.
  • Use fragrance-free skin care products and detergents.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing made from soft natural fibres such as cotton.
  • Don’t scratch!
  • Use colloidal oatmeal bathing and shampoo products and lotions to help alleviate itching and maintain moisture in the skin.
  • Use cool compresses on warm, inflamed skin.
  • Antihistamines may help to control itching.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and drink plenty of water.
  • Speak to your pharmacist or doctor about using corticosteroid ointment or cream to reduce itching. Always use these strictly according to package directions.
  • Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat skin infections and/or prescription steroid creams or oral steroids in severe cases.
  • Taking probiotics for skin healthcan help alleviate the signs and symptoms of eczema in both children and adults. Probiotics are good bacteria that help support the body’s microbiome, some of which reside on the skin. When the microbiome is balanced, with good bacteria outnumbering harmful microorganisms and in the correct ratio, the skin will be much healthier and more resistant to irritants, allergens, and harm.


There is no cure for eczema, although many people do grow out of it. It helps enormously to understand your triggers, avoid them where possible, and take steps to help prevent outbreaks as much as possible before they occur.

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