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    What is eczema (atopic dermatitis) and how can you manage it?

    Related Topic
    Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is an inherited, chronic skin condition that usually appears in early childhood. Patches of skin become red, dry and itchy and may weep. Eczema is not contagious. There is no cure, but it can be managed. Treatment may include moisturisers, corticosteroids, different creams and ointments, coal tar and ultraviolet radiation therapy (phototherapy).
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    • Prof Rodney Sinclair
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  • Professor Sinclair is a Professor of Dermatology at the University of Melbourne and Director of Sinclair Dermatology. He is past-president of the Australasian Society for … View Profile

    Eczema (atopic dermatitis)

    Atopic dermatitis (commonly known as eczema) is an inherited, chronic inflammatory skin condition that usually appears in early childhood. Patches of skin become red, scaly and itchy. Sometimes, tiny blisters containing clear fluid can form and the affected areas of skin can weep. Weeping is a sign that the dermatitis has become infected, usually with the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus (‘golden staph’). Eczema is not contagious.

    Eczema is caused by a person’s inability to repair damage to the skin barrier. This is due to a mutation in the gene called filaggrin. Filaggrin is important for formation of the skin barrier. Normally, every cell in the skin has two copies of the filaggrin gene. However, people who are susceptible to eczema only have one copy of this gene.

    Once the skin barrier is disrupted, moisture leaves the skin and the skin will become dry and scaly. Environmental allergens (irritants from the person’s surrounds) can also enter the skin and activate the immune system, producing inflammation that makes the skin red and itchy.

    You are more likely to get eczema if your family has a history of eczema or allergic conditions, including hay fever and asthma.

    In most cases, eczema is not caused or aggravated by diet. If you feel a food is to blame, see your doctor or a dietitian for proper allergy testing and dietary advice.

    While eczema causes stress, and stress may increase the energy with which you scratch, stress does not in itself cause eczema.

    Some things make eczema more likely to appear. These include:

    • contact with irritants in the environment
    • heat, which can aggravate itch and make affected people more likely to scratch
    • Allergic reaction to particular foods – this is rare. Food allergy appears as redness and swelling around the lips within minutes of eating the offending food.

    The physical effects of eczema can include:

    • skin dryness
    • red and scaly areas on the front of the elbows and the back of the knees
    • watery fluid weeping from affected skin
    • itchiness
    • lesions that may become infected by bacteria or viruses.

    Management of eczema

    Most people with eczema find that their symptoms are made worse by common aspects of daily living, such as hot weather, frequent showering, soap, ducted central heating and overheating in bed at night. The following tips may help you to better manage your eczema and reduce the frequency of flare-ups. Always see your doctor or dermatologist for further information and advice.

    Eczema coping tips – good hygiene

    Skin affected by eczema is more vulnerable to a range of infections including impetigo, cold sores and warts. The bacterium Staphylococcus aureus might cause a secondary infection of impetigo, and possibly contribute to the symptoms of eczema.

    Suggestions for washing include:

    • Take lukewarm baths or showers, and avoid really hot showers.
    • Don’t use ordinary soap, as the ingredients may aggravate your eczema. Wash your body with warm water alone. For armpits and groin, use soap-free products such as sorbolene cream.
    • Bath oils can help to moisturise your skin while bathing.
    • When towelling dry, pat rather than rub your skin.

    Eczema coping tips – reducing skin irritation

    People with eczema have sensitive skin. Irritants such as heat or detergents can easily trigger a bout of eczema. Suggestions for reducing skin irritation include:

    • Avoid overheating your skin. Wear several layers of clothing that you can remove, as required, instead of one heavy layer. Don’t put too many blankets on your bed and avoid doonas.
    • Don’t use perfumed bubble bath or bath products labelled ‘medicated’.
    • Wear soft, smooth materials next to your skin, preferably 100 per cent cotton. Avoid scratchy materials such as pure wool, polyester or acrylic. You could try a cotton and synthetic mix material – this is fine for some people with eczema. Remove labels from clothing.
    • Always wear protective gloves when using any type of chemical or detergent. You might want to wear cotton gloves inside the rubber or PVC gloves.
    • Avoid chlorinated pools. If you really must swim in a chlorinated pool, moisturise your skin well when you get out.

    Eczema coping tips – beauty products

    • Suggestions for the use of beauty products include:
    • Remember that even hypoallergenic cosmetics can irritate your skin. Whenever possible, keep your face free of make-up.
    • Avoid perfumes, fragranced skin lotions and strongly scented shampoos.
    • When using a new cosmetic, try testing it first on a small, inconspicuous area of skin such as your forearm. If you experience a reaction, don’t use the product again.

    Eczema coping tips – allergies

    In some cases, eczema may be an allergic reaction to environmental triggers. Some people with resistant eczema find it helpful to have allergy testing (for example, prick testing for common environmental allergens such as house-dust mites, moulds and grass pollens).

    Eczema coping tips – avoid changes in temperature

    Abrupt temperature and humidity changes can sometimes irritate the skin – for example, going in and out of air-conditioned buildings on hot days or heated buildings on cold days.

    Hard physical activity or exercise that makes you sweat heavily can also trigger the itch of eczema. Suggestions include:

    • In winter, don’t overheat your house. Dress warmly when going outdoors and remove the extra layers as soon as you return.
    • In summer, don’t overcool your house. Air conditioners can dry out the air and irritate your skin.
    • Avoid hard physical activity in hot weather. For example, do your gardening first thing in the morning, or in the evening when the sun is lower in the sky.

    Eczema coping tips – diet

    In most cases, eczema isn’t caused or made worse by diet. But if you notice that your eczema seems to get worse after eating a particular food, you may be one of the exceptions to this general rule. See your doctor or dietitian for proper allergy testing and dietary advice.

    Never self-diagnose, or you risk depriving yourself of enjoyable and nutritious foods for no good reason. Unnecessarily avoiding certain foods (such as dairy products) can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

    General tips for coping with eczema

    Other tips to manage your eczema include:

    • Keep your fingernails short – longer nails are more likely to injure your skin when you scratch.
    • If the water in your area is ‘hard’ (full of minerals) or alkaline, consider installing a water-softening device.
    • Swim in the sea in warm weather whenever you can – seawater is known to reduce the symptoms of eczema.
    • Use sun exposure for limited periods – for example, when swimming at the beach. This can help relieve eczema symptoms. But be aware that ultraviolet radiation is a risk factor for skin cancer and premature ageing of the skin. Also, if sun exposure causes overheating, this can also aggravate eczema, so don’t overdo it.

    Treatments for eczema

    Emollients (moisturisers) for treating eczema

    Emollient creams add moisture to the skin. Apply moisturisers each day to clean, dry skin. It is especially important to moisturise after showering and bathing, and when living or working in an air-conditioned or heated environment. You may need to try several different brands until you find the emollient that works best for you. Ask your doctor, dermatologist or pharmacist for advice.

    Anti-inflammatory ointments for treating eczema

    Eczema responds well to anti-inflammatory creams. Topical steroids (corticosteroids) come in various strengths and are available by prescription from your doctor. Generally, it is better to use the lowest strength that works adequately. Using high-strength topical steroids for extended periods, especially on delicate areas like the face, can cause side effects, including thinning of the skin. It is best to apply the cream to the reddened areas after bathing, but make sure the skin is thoroughly dry.

    In severe cases of eczema, a short course of oral corticosteroids may be necessary. This must be done under careful medical supervision because symptoms may become worse once you have finished taking the tablets.

    Pimecrolimus cream is a non-steroid anti-inflammatory cream that can help reduce flare-ups of eczema if applied at the first signs of eczema.

    Coal tar for treating eczema

    Applying coal tar to affected areas is another way to reduce the itch from eczema. Coal tar has a strong smell and tends to stain any fabric it touches. It can also irritate some people’s skin. Only use it under supervision of a doctor who is experienced in managing eczema.

    Ultraviolet radiation therapy (phototherapy) for eczema

    Exposure to ultraviolet radiation can help reduce the symptoms of chronic eczema. Exposure under medical supervision can be carefully monitored with the use of specially designed ‘cabinets’ – the person stands naked in the cabinet and fluorescent tubes emit ultraviolet radiation. A person with stubborn eczema may need up to 30 sessions. The risks of unsupervised ultraviolet radiation therapy can be the same as for sunbathing – faster aging of the skin and greater risk of skin cancer.

    Oral anti-inflammatory medication

    Most people affected by eczema can manage the condition with creams and ointments alone. While oral medications can help people whose eczema is resistant to treatment, their side effects can include high blood pressure, increased susceptibility to all types of infections, and mood and behavioural changes. Because of these risks, and the need for close and regular monitoring, oral anti-inflammatory treatment is only considered in severe cases of eczema that are difficult to control with other therapies.


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    Harper J, Coping with eczema: common questions, North East Valley Division of General Practice, Australia.

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    Allergy and Clinical Immunology, vol. 118, no. 4, pp. 866–871.

    Weidinger S, O’Sullivan M, Illig T, et al., 2008, ‘Filaggrin mutations, atopic eczema, hay fever, and asthma in children’, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, vol. 121, no. 5, pp. 1203–1209.

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