Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a common skin condition characterized by the inflammation, swelling or irritation of the skin. Eczema affects as many as 35 million Americans. Eczema is not dangerous, but it can cause significant discomfort if the skin itches. When that happens, the condition may worsen if the eczema is scratched.
Atopic dermatitis, or atopic eczema, is the most common form of eczema and is often found in babies and children.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, up to 20 percent of children and one to three percent of adults will develop atopic eczema. Causes include:
- An overreaction to environmental triggers by the body’s immune system
- Family history of allergies or asthma
- A defect in the skin which causes it to not properly regulate moisture and germs
- Irritants – Environmental elements such as soaps, detergents and certain fabrics
- Stress – Any form of stress, such as work, family or social issues, can trigger eczema
- Climate – Dramatic decreases in humidity can trigger eczema and cold, damp conditions can hamper eczema treatments
- Animal dander
- Upper respiratory infections
What are the symptoms?
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, up to 20 percent of children and one to three percent of adults will develop atopic eczema. Eczema is an equal opportunity condition that does not favor males or females. Although atopic eczema is most common in babies and children, it can also appear during puberty or throughout adulthood. Most of the infants who develop eczema are likely to outgrow it by their 10th birthday, though some eczema sufferers have lifelong symptoms.
A family history of eczema can also play a part in determining whether the condition will develop. Children with asthma or hay fever, or adults who develop asthma or hay fever before age 30 also seem to be more susceptible to eczema. Many adults experience eczema symptoms in times of stress. And while stress can trigger eczema, eczema can also trigger stress, which occurs when the affected skin is visible, leading to social stigma over the appearance of the condition.
Who gets it?
The onset of eczema is often characterized by itchiness in the area of the skin that will be visibly affected. Eczema is not contagious and may develop in any other area of the skin as well. When eczema occurs it is characterized by dry, scaly, flaky or thickened skin that is reddish and may turn brown. Conversely, those people with darker skin may see the affected area become lighter in color. Eczema can be cyclical with intermittent flare-ups. Infants most often suffer from eczema on the face and scalp, although like adults, it may appear anywhere.
According to the National Eczema Organization, the most common symptoms of eczema are:
- Dry, sensitive skin
- Intense itching
- Red, inflamed skin
- Recurring rash
- Scaly areas
- Rough, leathery patches
- Oozing or crusting
- Areas of swelling
- Dark-colored patches of skin
When symptoms occur, particularly in a repeat eczema incident, treatment results may be accelerated by a visit to a dermatologist for care.
Though there is no cure for eczema, its effects can be controlled through diligent care. Treatment options include:
Bathing follow-up. After bathing, applying a moisturizer on the affected area can help control eczema. In many cases, the most effective moisturizer is available only by prescription after a visit to a physician.
Topical steroids. These are a common and effective relief option for eczema. Topical steroids help reduce inflammation, soothe the skin to prevent soreness, reduce itchiness and allow the affected area to heal. As a naturally-occurring substance in our bodies, steroids regulate growth and immune functions. Of the many types of steroids that are available, corticosteroids are the type used to treat eczema. Corticosteroids are used because of their ability to control inflammation.
Non-steroid drugs. A topical calcineurin inhibitor (TCI) is a prescription drug that does not contain steroids. If you are concerned about the use of steroids to treat your eczema, ask your doctor about Elidel® and Protopi®, the two types of TCI that can provide effective alternatives.
Phototherapy. On occasion, eczema can be treated through the use of ultraviolet (UVB) light, known as phototherapy. In phototherapy, UVB rays are isolated and directed toward the affected areas. Phototherapy treatments should be applied under medical supervision.