In a word, eczema is evil. Atopic dermatitis, or atopic eczema, is the most common form of this chronic skin condition, which causes skin to become inflamed and itchy and for which there is no cure. Eczema tends to hit people who suffer from asthma and hay fever, and is believed to “result from a combination of inherited tendencies for sensitive skin and malfunction in the body’s immune system,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Misery. Embarrassment. Itchiness. Redness. Dry, scaly or sometimes crusted skin. Thick, leathery skin as a result of long-term scratching. Prematurely aged skin as a result of not moisturizing enough and using hot water (note: not advisable) to relieve the itch.
At its worst, eczema can even manifest as small, fluid-filled blisters. And unfortunately, all people who have eczema are prone to infections, especially when they have broken skin. It can hit anywhere, too. It might manifest as tight, red skin patches on someone’s face, on another person’s abdomen, on yet another person’s neck and commonly where elbows and knees bend.
Spicy food can trigger it in some. Certain foods, like tomatoes, can trigger it in others. Stress can trigger it in many. Skin-care products, even when marketed as hypoallergenic and dye-free, can trigger it in still others. Harsh soaps, perfumes, household cleaners, anything that contains alcohol, and fabric softeners and detergents are common triggers. Pollen, pet hair and dander and wool clothing are also triggers. Extreme weather conditions, too, are the bane of people who have eczema — if it’s too dry, your skin can dry out and make you feel itchy, but if it’s too humid, sweat can make you just as itchy, if not more so.
Many well-intentioned people recommend evening primrose oil. However, researchers conducted 27 studies involving a total of 1,596 adults and children with atopic eczema and found that taking evening primrose oil neither helped alleviate their symptoms nor worsen them.
“There is no evidence that taking either evening primrose or borage oil is of benefit to eczema sufferers,” said lead researcher Joel Bamford of the University of Minnesota Medical School and Essentia Health System in Duluth, Minn. “Given the strength of the evidence in our review, we think further studies on the use of these complementary therapies to treat eczema would be hard to justify.”
While there is no cure, there are steps people with eczema can take to prevent flare-ups, and it is advisable that you consult your GP and dermatologist before pursuing any treatments. The important caveat here is that what works for one person might not necessarily work for another, given the nature of this chronic skin condition. Eczema is a tricky beast.
Hydrate: How much water do you drink? If the answer is a bottle every now and again, then no wonder you are constantly itchy. No, drinking a liter of water a day will not cure you or guarantee that you won’t suffer from flare-ups, but it might keep flare-ups at bay so that you are not in constant misery. Get thee a water bottle, fill it (with actual water) and drink up.
Moisturize: Stop fighting it. Yes, you may have to try a few different moisturizers until you find the one that works best for you. But the bottom line is that your skin is dry — your skin is thirsty and parched and you have to give it something to drink. Moisturize before bedtime and after you shower and have hand cream with you to apply throughout the day. (Keeping it in your purse or pocket is not enough. — You have to actually apply it). You already know to steer clear of products with fragrances and dyes. Aveno and Neutrogena make products that are sensitive-skin-friendly, and that’s a good place for you to start your search.
Take a bath: So that oatmeal bath did nothing for you 15 years ago. Well, maybe it’s time you try again. In fact, while years ago, doctors advised those with eczema to avoid taking baths (because too much time in water will aggravate symptoms), nowadays they recommend people try soaking for a few minutes — if your skin starts to prune up, you’ve stayed in too long. Some, not all, people with eczema have found that short baths relieve their symptoms.
Also, consider a few factors here: How hot is the water? What product are you using and what are the ingredients? Consider making your own oatmeal bath so you know exactly what you are exposing your skin to, which will put you at ease and in turn lessen the chances of getting itchy (remember stress?). As long as you keep your doctor and dermatologist in the loop, it’s worth an honest go, especially if your current routine is not exactly working (read: you are itching and your skin is inflamed anyway).
Avoiding the unavoidable: Avoiding foods that cause flare-ups via process of elimination or as a result of testing for food intolerance with your doctor is fairly easy. Avoiding stressful situations not so much — but you can try exercising, meditating or doing any activity that relaxes you, like reading, listening to music or singing show tunes in the shower (don’t judge). You might not be able to address stress the moment it happens, but do try to squeeze in some you time for a few minutes a day every day.
Some sites suggest you avoid getting hot and sweaty — good luck. What you can do, however, is try wearing loose comfortable clothing made of cotton and having a handkerchief or paper towel handy to dry off excess sweat when you’re walking around.
Cortisone creams: Your doctor may prescribe the stronger stuff, which you should absolutely without question or comment use solely and exclusively as directed. If you’re using the over-the-counter stuff, please talk to your doctor, because you shouldn’t be using OTC cortisone cream as a substitute for moisturizers several times a day every day for any prolonged period of time — whether it relieves your itch or you’ve merely convinced yourself that it’s the only thing that works for you.
Hot versus cold: Some people with eczema go against all advice and rely on very hot water to relieve (or burn) their itch. This is extremely harsh on skin, dries it out more — which causes more itching (hello, vicious cycle) — and leaves skin prone to breaking and therefore vulnerable to infection. Try a cold compress instead, which will reduce inflammation and deter you from scratching.