What Eczema is
Eczema, clinically known as Dermatitis, is a chronic skin condition, which causes the skin to become inflamed, dry, red and itchy. Eczema is derived from the Greek word “ekzein”, which means “to boil out” and is an apt description of what this condition does.
Eczema affects approximately 11% of children and an estimated three percent of the adults that visit a dermatologist. Eczema is not contagious or life threatening, but can cause severe discomfort if serious cases are not treated. There are various forms of Eczema, ranging in severity and a variety of symptoms, as well as treatment options.
Symptoms of Eczema
Symptoms of Eczema can range from mild to very serious. Also, some individuals will have seasonal flare-ups, while others may suffer year around. Mild symptoms can usually be managed with creams and include:
- Dry skin
- Scaly skin
More serious symptoms of Eczema may include:
- Severe itching, especially at night
- Bleeding skin that cracks when scratched
- Skin that crust over and forms painful scabs
- Inflamed areas that leak clear fluid, which is called “weeping”
Types of Eczema
Atopic Eczema is commonly used to describe eczema in general, but the prefix “atopy” actually means eczema that is inherited. Many cases are classified as inherited, because the overwhelming majority (80%) of cases are diagnosed by the age of five. Although not known for sure, this leads clinicians to believe that inherited traits coupled with environmental triggers initiate the eczema flare-ups. Immune system abnormalities have also been indicated. Individuals who have Atopic Eczema are more likely to develop Hay Fever or Asthma during their lifetime as well.
Often known as Allergic Eczema, is an irritation that occurs when a person comes into contact with a specific item or allergen. This can be something that briefly comes into contact with the skin, such as an article of clothing or something with longer lasting contact, such as jewelry. Some common triggers for Contact Dermatitis are:
- Clothing made of harsh fibers
- Clothing detergent
- Costume jewelry
- Latex gloves
- Certain foods
- Perfume that contains artificial scents
- Lotions and creams that contain synthetic coloring agents and other ingredients
- Shampoo and body wash that contain harsh cleansers, such as Sulphates
- Work environments containing synthetic or hazardous materials.
Usually, the symptoms of Contact Dermatitis will abate once the offending allergen is located and removed from your environment. A common way to search for the trigger is by using the elimination method. Remove one thing at a time from your environment and evaluate whether the symptoms improve at all. You may try washing all clothes in a detergent for sensitive skin, eliminate harsh cleansers or remove items one by one from your diet. Once the trigger is identified, keeping it at bay will usually resolve the problem.
Also known as Nummular Dermatitis or Discoid Dermatitis, Discoid Eczema and consists of round or coin shaped patches of Eczema and usually occur on the lower legs, but can be found elsewhere. The patches can be less than a half inch in diameter or much larger. Discoid Eczema is similar in appearance to wing worm, and often a culture will be examined for a positive identification. Discoid Lupus is not though to be brought about by an allergic reaction like Contact Eczema, but can result from injury to the skin.
Discoid Eczema presents in two forms- wet and dry. In wet Discoid Eczema, the skin is usually bumpy, cracked and may be oozing. The dry form will be more flat, itchy and flaky. Sanitation is key, as it is common for Discoid Eczema lesions to become infected with bacteria and even the flesh eating Staphylococcus virus.
Discoid Lupus can be treated a number of ways. First and foremost, take care to avid any activity that can further damage the skin. For example, use gloves or breathable long sleeved shirts to protect skin from the environment. Secondly, depending on the severity, topical and oral medication may be prescribed.
If the outbreak is mild to moderate, an oral antihistamine may suffice to calm itching, while balms and lotions can be used to moisturize and protect the skin. Glycerin and Lanoline based moisturizers are best for this. For more severe, crusted and weeping cases, oral antibiotics will be prescribed to control infection, along with topical steroid creams to reduce the inflammation and severity of the rash. An oral antihistamine will likely be prescribed as well to control itching. This course of treatment will likely take a few weeks to show effectiveness and it is possible for there to be hyper pigmentation or scarring, especially in darker complexioned individuals.
This type of Eczema can affect both adults and children and is usually confined to the scalp and face, but often extends to the neck, armpits, under the breast and the genital area. Some cases may show irritation on the torso, as well as behind the knees.
Often beginning as heavy dandruff, Seborrhoec Eczema progresses to skin that is reddish and inflamed, with thick, crusty white scales that often flake off. The affected areas can have a slick, crusty and greasy appearance. On the face, it is common to find patches in and behind the ears, in the eyebrows and alongside the nose.
In children, patches are often found in the diaper area, scalp and in the creases and folds of skin behind the legs and arms. Research has shown that individuals with Seborrheoic Eczema show an elevated level of yeast on the skin, which breeds in the affected areas. There is no conclusive study, but an overgrowth of Candida in the body may cause the external symptoms of Seborrhoeic Excema.
Traditional medical theory is that this type of Eczema is reoccurring over a person’s life time, if the initial onset is during the adult years. Typical treatments include topical or oral steroids and a moisturizer for extremely dry patches. For children, usually an antifungal or steroid cream is recommended in severe cases. However, young children will usually grow out of the condition.
This type is also known as Stasis Eczema or Varicose Eczema. This form of eczema is distinct in that it is usually concentrated on the lower legs and occurs in older individuals, those that are overweight and people who have suffered from blood clots in the legs.
Gravitational Eczema is the result of intense, prolonged pressure on the veins, which often occurs in cases of poor circulation, where instead of blood flowing back up towards the heart, it pools in the lower legs and puts a strain on the blood vessels there. Over time, these vessels leak or burst, allowing fluid to pool under the skin. This can cause visible brown and red patches under the skin and eventually the thinning and breakage of the skin barrier. When this happens, the area becomes a weeping ulcer, which may crust over at times and leak at others.
Gravitational Eczema is usually treated with compression stockings, if detected early. These special stockings help to push fluid up the leg back towards the heart and avoid pooling on the legs and damage to the veins there. It helps to place clean cloths or bandages inside of the stockings to help ease friction and provide a buffer to catch any leaking fluid. Topical steroids will be prescribed for serious cases. Antibiotics may be prescribed if the area becomes infected.
Eczema in babies and small children can often be more troublesome than in adults. As children, especially babies have extremely sensitive skin and cannot express themselves, it is often trial and error to identify what may be causing the problem. Below are common reasons for eczema in young children:
- The mother’s hormones still in the baby’s system from the birth
- Harsh soap and lotion
- Itchy clothing fibers
- A particular baby formula
- Medication or spicy food transferred via breast milk
- Living with a smoker
- Pet fur
- Irritating bedding
- Some baby jewelry
With children, especially a newborn, it is important to make sure that everything that touches their skin is as non-irritating as possible. If your baby is experiencing Eczema, examine their environment for possible irritants.
This is also a very common form of Seborrhoeic Eczema that occurs in newborns. Cradle cap may appear immediately after birth, or after a few months. A common issue, this form of Eczema can be treated by rubbing natural oil on the baby’s scalp and lightly brushing away flakes. Also, be careful to use a mild baby shampoo, so as not to further irritate the scalp. Cradle cap usually resolves on its own with proper maintenance.
Causes of Eczema
There is no documented cause of Eczema in traditional Western medical journals. However, researchers believe that a combination of heredity, allergies and environmental factors play a role. Most of the information available in traditional medical literature focuses on relieving the symptoms of Eczema. However, both traditional and alternative medicines identify similar genetic commonalities, triggers and aggravators of Eczema, discussed below. These include allergies, stress, food sensitivities, environmental factors, or immune system irregularities, as discussed below.
Diet & Nutrition
Diet plays an important role in overall health and the avoidance, and treatment of chronic diseases. A health practitioner will examine the diet as an initial source of inflammation. Many individuals have discovered that they have food intolerances that cause allergic reactions in the form of Eczema. Common culprits are:
- Spicy food
- Processed meat
- Soy products
- Artificial colors and preservatives
Often a range of allergy testing or employing the elimination diet can pinpoint a food intolerance that may be causing Eczema flare ups. Eczema causing food allergies are more prevalent in young children, with the average age being between two and four years old. Avoiding those foods should reduce the immune response that triggers Eczema.
Environmental Allergens are also common instigators of Eczema. If you have tried testing for food allergies to no avail, it may be beneficial to have your home or office evaluated for mold, asbestos or mites. These environmental allergens can also trigger severe immune responses, resulting in the manifestation of Eczema. Using an indoor air filter and replacing infested home materials, removing pet fur and dander and regularly cleaning carpets may reduce symptoms.
Stress is a powerful agent in the body and can cause a number of symptoms, one of which is Eczema. Traditional medicine has identified stress as an aggravator for eczema, if not an originating cause. However, Alternative medicine fully acknowledges the mind/body connection and the ability for thoughts and emotions to impact physical health. Prolonged, chronic stress can stimulate an ongoing stream of stress hormones, wear out the endocrine system and can compromise immune function. This can present in a number of ways, one of which is Eczema.
If stress is a likely factor, it is beneficial to have a thorough workup of the endocrine system and check all hormones levels. Often, rebalancing these systems will provide tremendous relief. In addition, lifestyle changes can also help to reduce the severity of Eczema, as well as prevent future occurrences. Finding ways to better manage stress is vital to continued overall health.
Personal Care Items that are used by millions everyday can cause allergic reactions and prompt Contact Dermatitis. Many people are unaware of this, as there is no government body that oversees the testing and regulation of personal care products, allowing producers can use whatever ingredients they like. The vast majority of products used to shave, moisturize, and scent contain synthetic chemical ingredients. The average person soaks up an estimated 126 ingredients from 10 personal care products a day. As many of these ingredients are not natural, they are not easily assimilated into the body and blood stream. The body sees them for what they are: foreign substances that not only provide no nourishment, but in many cases actually cause harm.
Ways to Avoid Harmful Personal Care Products
- Buy organic or natural personal care items. However, beware of products that tout the natural label, but are just a synthetic cocktail, with perhaps one or two natural ingredients.
- Avoid ingredients with strong preservatives, such as Parabens.
- Stop using shampoo and body wash that contain Sulphates, which are harsh industrial strength cleansers that can dry and irritate the skin.
- Check the toxicity level of specific personal care items using the Environmental Working Group’s “Skin Deep” Database: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
- Make your own skin care products using ingredients such as pure shea butter, aloe vera, glycerin and natural oils.
- Study the skin nourishing properties of many fruits and other foods. Milk and honey baths, avocado facials and oatmeal scrubs, to name a few.
Eczema is largely diagnosed based on a visual examination. The physician will examine all inflamed areas and question the patient about the duration and severity of the problem. In some cases, a small skin biopsy may be taken to rule out other illnesses. Some physicians may also request an allergy panel to assess if there are any foods or environmental allergies that could be prompting the Eczema.
Common Eczema Treatments
Eczema treatment is usually divided into three categories: Moisturizers, Topical Medicinal Creams and Oral Medications. Below is an explanation for each category, along with common items and brands.
Moisturizers are a common first line of defense in Eczema.
The goal is to re-hydrate the skin, minimize flaking and avoid skin breakage. The most effective moisturizers will have a high natural oil content and be devoid of dye and fragrance. Common Eczema moisturizers are:
- Cetaphil lotion or Eucerin Crème
- Pure Shea Butter
- Almond oil, Castor oil, Tea Tree oil
- Glycerin based moisturizers
- Pure Emu oil
Medicinal creams are prescribed for harder to manage Eczema.
Topical corticosteroids creams, in particular, are strong medications that work to suppress the inflammatory nature of Eczema, allowing the skin to heal. Caution must be used, however, because corticosteroids can have side affects, especially with prolonged use.
Oral Medications are of a few varieties.
For mild to moderate eczema, oral antihistamine medication may be prescribed, such as Benadryl. This type of medicine reduces the itch associated with Eczema and also has the additional benefit of sedation, which makes it easier to sleep without scratching. Also, in instances that patches of Eczema have become infected, oral antibiotics will be prescribed to fight the infection.
Alternative Health Treatments for Eczema
Probiotics may be prescribed by a holistic health practitioner to treat Eczema, especially if the patient presents symptoms of leaky gut syndrome as well. Probiotics are the good bacteria found in the gut that helps to maintain a healthy ecosystem in the body. However, because of diet, lifestyle and other factors, the bad bacteria can proliferate at a high rate and overwhelm the system. This can cause small holes in the intestines and colon which allows food particles to escape and enter the bloodstream, causing an allergic reaction. Taking probiotics helps to rebalance and repair the gut and reduce the inflammatory allergic response that may be causing eczema.
Probiotics are safe for children and adults, with a study conducted by The Journal of Clinical & Experimental Allergy showed a remarkable decrease in Atopic Eczema symptoms in infants that were fed Probiotic supplemented formula, over the group that received regular formula. The probotic group showed reduced inflammation markers and visible signs of Eczema.
TCM & Acupuncture
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture are another alternative modality for treating Eczema. Chinese medicine dictates that manifestations such as Eczema are allergic reactions from an imbalance in one or more of the body’s organs or systems. This imbalance inhibits the flow of life force energy and causes systemic upset. Chinese medicine attributes allergic symptoms to an excess of damp and heat in some of the major organs. In the case of Eczema, the lungs, spleen, and kidneys are indicated.
It is believed that a number of factors cause the imbalance in these organs, one of which is the consumption of phlegm stimulating dairy. As the digestive systems of babies and children are extremely delicate, it is recommended that they consume rice or almond milk, and possibly goat’s milk (the most easily digestible), or soy milk in moderation. It is also recommended to greatly reduce sweet and greasy food, as they contribute to the moist/phlegm problem, and to dilute even fresh fruit juice.
Another possible reason for the Eczema breakouts in Chinese Medicine is the introduction of heat bearing toxins that are introduced with immunizations in children and the flu shot in adults. These toxins overwhelm the body and produce an allergic reaction. Detoxifying the body by means of regulating the diet, consuming special herbal blends and receiving acupuncture treatments has shown improvements in as little as a few weeks to three months.
Herbalists use the many healing elements of nature to calm the inflamed itchy rash that is eczema. Some effective herbal and floral remedies include using Licorice gel or Chamomile cream to sooth dry irritated skin and promote healing. Also, Calendula and Echinacea creams reduce help to reverse immune response and calm inflammation. Chicken weed reduces itching and irritation and gently cleanses the skin or toxins and burdock tea may be taken internally for the same result. Herbalist also will recommend that individuals with Eczema cleanse the colon, a major toxin storehouse and complete an herbal kidney flush.
- The Mayo Clinic. Contact Dermatitis: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/contact-dermatitis/DS00985
- Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy: Eczema http://www.allergy.org.au/content/view/173/1/
- The Environmental Working Group. Skin Deep: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/faq/
- National Eczema Society. Seborrhoeic eczema in Adults: http://www.eczema.org/seborrhoeic.html
- Kids Health. Eczema: http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/skin/eczema_atopic_dermatitis.html
- NHS. Treating Atopic Eczema: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Eczema-%28atopic%29/Pages/Treatment.aspx
- New Zealand Dermatological. Discoid Eczema: http://dermnetnz.org/dermatitis/nummular-dermatitis.html
- Journal of Clinical & Experimental Allergy: Vol.30, Issue 11. Pages 1605-1610. Nov. 2000. Found online at:
- Acupuncture Today. Treating Childhood Eczema With Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs: http://acupuncturetoday.com/mpacms/at/article.php?id=30039