Do you suffer with scaly, itchy skin that blisters and peels? I know this may sound like a dreadful condition to live with but the truth is that eczema is on the rise. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, 9 – 30% of the U.S. population has some type of skin problem. Eczema is a general term that defines a group of medical conditions that cause the skin to become inflamed or irritated.

As a dermatologist, I treat many patients with atopic eczema, the most common type of dermatitis. Although children are the most likely to have eczema, some people continue to experience symptoms throughout their life. Fortunately for most people, the disease can be controlled with proper treatment or medication.
Atopic refers to diseases that develop from allergies such as asthma and hay fever. Eczema is often found in families with a history of similar allergies and seems to be an inherited condition. No one really knows what causes Eczema but some researchers think it is linked to an overactive response by the body’s immune system that reacts to triggers including environmental irritants, severe weather, rough materials, soaps, pollen, animals, or mold.

Eczema is usually fairly easy to diagnose simply by the outward appearance of your skin and knowing your personal and family history. Sometimes, when the condition persists, allergy skin testing is required.

Living With Eczema

If you are suffering with eczema you know how painful it can be when your skin becomes inflamed and irritated. You may notice changes in your skin that include blisters, bleeding, raw areas of the skin from scratching, and thickening patches after long-term irritation. A rash is more commonly seen in adults on the inside of knees and elbows, neck, hands, and feet. However, rashes may occur anywhere on the body during a severe outbreak.

Patients often come to me when symptoms reach a critical point and the scratching has become unbearable. They are surprised when I explain that by taking care of their skin at home they may reduce the need for medication. Here’s how!

1.First things first…avoid scratching! Use a cold compress or take an antihistamine to help reduce the itch. If you scratch unknowingly at night time try wearing light gloves.

2.Lubricate the skin by using ointments such as petroleum jelly, creams, or lotions 2-3 times a day. Make sure all moisturizers are free of alcohol, scents, dyes, fragrances, or other chemicals.

3.Other things that sometimes aggravate eczema symptoms are:

- Certain foods such as dairy, peanuts, egg or wheat
- Some fabrics such as wool
- Soaps with strong detergents, chemicals and solvents
- Sudden temperature changes or stress that might cause sweating

4.Keep your baths or showers short with cooler water. Do not scrub skin too hard and always lubricate while skin is damp.

What Treatments Work?

Other than home care techniques there are over-the-counter products such as hydrocortisone that reduce inflammation. If your case is severe, your doctor may prescribe prescription creams or oral corticosteroids and in some instances antibiotics might be needed to kill infection.

You may consider some very helpful natural remedies for eczema that do not produce side affects and are readily available. Remember it’s always best to check with your doctor before introducing anything new to your system whether orally or topically.

Probiotics are live microbial organisms that are found in the digestive tract. When taken in supplement form they are thought to reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and strengthen your digestive tract. Researchers have found that probiotics actually help alleviate symptoms of eczema in children who have allergies to food.

Creams and Gels made from herbal extracts of chamomile, licorice, and witch hazel have produces favorable results for reducing symptoms of Eczema. In a study comparing chamomile cream to 0.5% hydrocortisone cream or placebo, the chamomile cream was just as effective after two weeks.

Primrose oil and borage oil are a type of essential fatty acid that has been shown to correct deficiencies in skin lipids that trigger inflammation. It is thought that fatty acids of this nature may help to reduce symptoms of Eczema.
As you can see there are a number of things you can do at home to help your skin condition. If you’ve tried self-care steps without success you should see your doctor if:

•Your discomfort becomes unbearable
•You are losing sleep
•You are having trouble functioning
•Your skin is painful
•You suspect you have an infection

Winter is the time of year when most people experience flare ups due to the cold, dry air. Don’t let your skin condition get the best of you. Take precautions now and follow the advice I give to my patients when it comes to at home self-care. Although Eczema is a chronic condition, you can control it by guarding against harsh environmental irritants and keeping your skin well-moisturized.

Jay Brachfeld, M.D.

Author's Bio: 

•BS Chemistry Massachusetts Institute of Technology
•MD State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine
•Dermatology Residency: Baylor College of Medicine
•Board Certified in Dermatology
•Member American Academy of Dermatology