An estimated six million Brits have the skin condition, and according to the NHS the number of reported cases has risen by 40% in the last four years.
Whether you were born with it, or you developed eczema later in life, it can be extremely painful, not to mention embarrassing, and it stops many sufferers leading the lives they would like to.
Eczema is red, flaky and itchy skin, which will often crack and weep.
The most common type is atopic eczema (caused by allergies) but people may suffer from contact eczema (flare-ups after touching allergens such as nickel or rubber), discoid eczema (which occurs in coin-shaped patches), or seborrheic eczema (eczema of the scalp).
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Atopic eczema is in your genes, and often goes hand-in-hand with hay fever and asthma.
You can send eczema into remission, but you’ll always have it – it’s a case of whether you have symptoms or not.
The aim of the treatment is to keep people free from flare-ups.
Although you may be genetically predisposed to eczema, it can only be set off by a trigger, which could be anything from nuts to dog hair, wool to cigarette smoke. Establishing what that trigger is, is key to treatment.
There are several routes to help you lead as normal a life as possible.
Scratching may bring temporary relief to the itch, but it actually triggers the release of a chemical called histamine which just causes more itching. Scratching damages the skin and may allow bacteria that normally lives on the surface to get in and cause infection. Keep nails short, and whenever you get the urge to have a scratch, massage the itchy area with moisturiser using the pads of your fingertips.
Slather on the cream
The best way to treat eczema is moisturising. Cover your body with moisturiser morning and night, and keep a pot in your bag to top up during the day. Your doctor or online pharmacist can prescribe different emollients, but not all of them will work for everyone. Apply after a shower when the skin’s still damp to help trap in moisture. Do this rigorously, even when you don’t have symptoms. Don’t panic if your favourite cream stops working – you may need to switch between a couple of brands.
Visit the doctor
For cases of severe eczema, your GP may refer you to a dermatologist who can prescribe steroid cream such as hydrocortisone, special bandages and wet wraps, or even ultraviolet light therapy. Although steroids may have nasty side-effects if used long term, a short course is perfectly safe. If left untreated, severe eczema can cause lichenification, which causes the skin to become thick and leathery. Pharmacy2u can offer free, convenient delivery of prescription medication, taking off some of the strain when you and your family might appreciate it most.
There are plenty of ways you can soothe your skin naturally. Make sure your sheets are cotton, which is kinder to the skin than synthetic materials – you could even try wearing cotton gloves at night to prevent scratching. Oatmeal has been used for centuries to treat skin conditions – put a couple of handfuls in a pair of old tights and put it in a warm bath before washing to soothe your skin. Also try aloe vera gel from the fridge so it’s cool and refreshing, or drink aloe vera juice. Coconut oil is favoured by many sufferers – choose an organic, cold pressed variety and rub onto damp skin. Also, it’s common for eczema to flare up during stressful periods, so try to find ways to reduce stress, such as going for a long walk, breathing techniques or yoga.
Watch your triggers
Know your enemy - cow’s milk is a well-known culprit, but other common problem foods include eggs, soya and wheat. You can try a food elimination diet, which involves cutting out common trigger foods for a period of time and then gradually reintroducing them to see if they cause a flare-up. For healthy skin, make sure you eat plenty of foods that are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, such as oily fish, flaxseeds and walnuts.
By Dr. Alexandra Phelan
Dr Phelan is a GP with the NHS and Pharmacy2U, an online service which provides free, fast and convenient delivery of NHS repeat prescriptions.