Under the skin: Eczema uncovered
Dry-skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema aren’t fatal but they can have an adverse affect your life. We asked readers for their experiences.
Around one in three people living in the UK has a skin condition at any one time. Yet despite 15 to 20% of a GP’s workload being concentrated on skin-related issues, coping with the discomfort caused by ailments such as eczema or psoriasis seldom proves to be straightforward. Conditions may range from mild itching to more painful irritation, and coping with any skin condition will always be two-fold. The patient’s emotional turmoil stemmed by the visibility of the complaint can often be harder to manage than the actual physical discomfort. We sought the advice of eczema and psoriasis sufferers to find out what really makes a difference to them when living with two conditions that are truly skin deep.
Eczema is a term for a group of medical conditions that cause the skin to become inflamed or irritated. The most common type of eczema is known as atopic dermatitis, or atopic eczema. In mild cases, eczema can be nothing more than an irritating patch of sore skin, but in severe cases large areas of skin may become inflamed and unbearably itchy. Who does it affect? Eczema affects all ages, with one in five children in the UK and one in 12 adults suffering from the condition. Atopic eczema affects some 10% of children in the UK by the age of seven and begins in the first year of life in about 60% of them.
The exact causes are still unknown, although you can have a genetic or inherited tendency to develop the condition. Often symptoms flare up for no reason, although they may be set off by certain triggers – for example, particular soaps and chemicals, changes in temperature, stress or being run down.
Whatever type of eczema you have, the main treatments are the same. Emollients are used to moisturise the skin, keep it flexible, help prevent cracks and lessen any itchiness. When the skin becomes inflamed, mild steroid creams, such as hydrocortisone, can reduce inflammation and speed up healing. For more severe eczema, more drastic treatments include antibiotics or stronger steroid creams and oral steroids. Some sufferers have found alternative therapies, such as herbal creams and homeopathy helpful, too. Help at hand National Eczema Society: 0800 089 1122. www.eczema.org
How alternative therapies, or even just talking, can help
‘I get patches of eczema on my legs and sometimes on my chest as well. I take Piriteze Allergy Tablets (£4.69, Superdrug) to counteract any allergies that might be making it worse. And I moisturise every day using Simple Replenishing Rich Moisturiser (£1.52, Boots). For relieving itchiness and helping to clear patches of eczema, I’ve found Sudocrem Antiseptic Healing Cream (£2, Asda) very good. But it’s trial and error for everyone.’ Olivia James, 22, designer, Scotland
‘I find talking about eczema really helps as it’s a condition that affects you mentally as well. I have some very ugly scars on my hands from the constant scratching and I have lost several nights’ sleep with it. At its worst it’s like a constant battle. It’s often difficult explaining the problem and the sheer annoyance of it to a non-eczema sufferer. So I have gained huge comfort from sharing my stories with others.’ Becky Lewis, 24, PR account manager, Norwich
‘I’ve suffered with eczema all my life – but recently, after a period of stress, it started appearing on my face. Previous low self-esteem from the condition has now been heightened to the point where I avoid social situations when I have a bad flare-up. After trying out a number of heavy emollients, such as aqueous creams (which for me only made things worse) and 1% hydrocortisone (which unfortunately works only short-term), I have been trying out natural remedies and alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and cupping (hot glass cups placed on skin to coaxe blood to the area). Yoga and exercise also help.’ Nadia Al-Khaffaf, 25, e-learning developer, Manchester
‘I have had eczema since I was a baby, when I was covered head to toe. I grew out of most of it, except for on my hands – particularly my palms and the insides of my fingers. Several GPs have put me on steroid creams, of increasing strengths, but this thinned my skin so much that last winter the side of my finger split open. I will never use them again. Instead, I now visit a ‘doctor fish’ (garra rufa fish) parlour and, even after having just one session, I noticed a dramatic difference within hours of having the fish nibble at my hands. This is the only treatment that has worked for me, and I have tried everything – from dramatically changing my diet, to steroid and topical creams, and even just wearing cotton gloves constantly.’ Holly Jones, 22, temporary worker, London
‘As a holistic therapist, I encounter sufferers of skin conditions on a day-to-day basis. The cause is generally stress, so it’s important for the sufferer to address this. I usually recommend aloe vera because the gel extract works with the immune system and epithelial tissue. Aloe is also known as the burns plant and, if applied immediately to any skin irritation and is used regularly enough, it has amazing healing properties.’ Sarah-Jane Tepper, 36, complementary therapist, London