It’s easy to dismiss eczema as just itchy dry skin. But as millions of people know, the effects of eczema go way beyond this.
“Eczema is so much more than ‘just an itch’,” says Andrew Proctor, chief executive of the National Eczema Society.
“Affecting over eight million people in the UK, this incurable, highly visible skin condition has a huge impact on every aspect of a person’s life, extending far beyond the physical symptoms of itchy, inflamed, sore, cracked and bleeding skin.
“Living with eczema means constantly having to plan and prepare, as every decision you make will potentially affect your skin. It shapes your home environment, education, career, social life, hobbies, holidays and relationships, and as a result, patients often report feeling anxious, depressed, self-conscious, isolated and helpless.”
This National Eczema Week (September 9-16), here’s what Proctor wants everyone to know…
1. It doesn’t just affect children
Atopic eczema affects one in five children and one in 10 adults in the UK. Proctor says: “While eczema is often viewed as a childhood condition, it affects people of all ages. Some develop eczema as babies, others in childhood, but thankfully it can improve over time.”
Some people will have eczema all their life however, and some only develop it in their later years. “The important thing is to seek medical advice as soon as possible to get control of the eczema and develop an effective skincare routine,” advises Proctor.
2. It’s not contagious
Proctor says that sadly, many people still think you can catch eczema. “However, atopic eczema isn’t contagious,” he stresses – pointing out it’s a complex condition involving genes, the immune system, the environment and our skin barrier. “This means skin becomes very dry and doesn’t provide sufficient protection from irritants, allergens and infection.”
To tackle this, a foundation of eczema care is to apply medical moisturisers (emollients) to trap water in the skin and help reinforce the skin barrier. “Finding the emollient that suits your skin best can involve a lot of trial and error, but it’s critical to managing eczema,” says Proctor.
3. Environment plays a huge role
Environmental factors can trigger eczema flare-ups or make it worse. Common culprits include stress, being too hot/cold or experiencing a sudden change in temperature, soap, shampoo and bubble bath, laundry detergent and cleaning products, perfume, pollens and moulds, pet fur, wool and synthetic fabric, and house dust mites.
“Everyone will have certain things that trigger their eczema, and these vary between people,” Proctor explains. “Try keeping a diary to help identify triggers and patterns, so you can remove likely suspects and see if it helps. Triggers can also change over time and it’s worth continuing with the diary even if you think you’ve identified yours.”
4. It’s hard not to scratch
Proctor explains: “One of the most maddening things you can say to someone with eczema is ‘stop scratching’. It’s not that simple! The unbearable, relentless itch is one of the defining features of the condition, and patients refer to it as torture.
“You know you shouldn’t scratch, as it damages the skin and can cause infections, but the relief it provides is irresistible.”
To help manage the itch, Proctor suggests finding a positive distraction or asking others to help you take your mind off it. You could also try substituting another action for scratching – press a nail on the itchy patch or tap the skin gently with your forefinger; keep your hands occupied with a ball, toy or other object; or wrap a bag of frozen peas in a towel and apply it to the itchiest area.
5. It’s a mental as well as physical battle
Living with eczema is mentally exhausting too. “It can be a rollercoaster of emotions, from excitement when you start a new treatment, to despair when it doesn’t work or you experience a bad flare-up,” says Proctor. “There can be huge frustration too, when you do everything you’ve been asked and the eczema still refuses to give you any respite.”
If this happens, as well as asking your GP or dermatologist for a review, it’s important to reach out to family and friends for support: “People who are able to open up about how their eczema truly affects them can feel a huge weight has been lifted.”
Other ways to help cope include good nutrition and hydration, regular exercise, rest and relaxation. “Journaling, meditation and mindfulness can help you focus on the good things in your life and counterbalance negative feelings about eczema,” adds Proctor.
“When so much time and effort goes into managing your eczema, it’s easy to forget there’s more to you than just your skin. Think about what you want to accomplish and formulate a plan. It’s about living successfully alongside eczema, not having your life defined by it.”
For more information, visit eczema.org. The NES’ new video – More Than ‘Just An Itch’ – goes live on September 9 to mark National Eczema Week.