Common medical conditions explained: Eczema

    22 November 2019

    What is eczema?

    Eczema (sometimes called atopic dermatitis) is a common skin complaint characterised by itchy, red, dry and cracked skin. The main symptom is itch and this can be very distressing and uncomfortable. When it is very active, it may become moist and weep fluid. It is not catching. It affects about 10 per cent of infants at some stage.

    What causes eczema?

    Eczema can be treated with moisturisers and by avoiding known triggers

    The skin condition Eczema can be treated with moisturisers and by avoiding known triggers

    It’s not known exactly what causes it but it’s more common in people who are prone to allergies and runs in families, so it is thought there is a genetic component. It is more common in children although it can occur for the first time in adults. There can be certain triggers such as washing detergents, certain foods or stress. It is usually diagnosed by taking a history and a doctor examining the skin. Occasionally a blood test may be needed or swabs taken to exclude other causes or infections.

    How is eczema treated?

    There is no cure of eczema although when it occurs in children it will often improve as they get older, with 75% clearing by their late teens. For most people it is managed by applying specialist moisturisers to the skin on a regular basis. Those with this condition will often use moisturiser instead of soap when washing. When the itch is troublesome, steroid creams can also be used and antihistamines are sometimes prescribed. Some people respond to ultraviolet light. For those with very severe eczema, there are some oral medications which suppress the immune system.

    What can the patient do?

    Avoiding the known triggers is helpful. Regular use of medical moisturisers is also helpful to prevent flare-ups – this should be at least 2 or 3 times a day. Try to resist the temptation to scratch. In small children wearing mittens can help with this. Many people find using a non-biological washing powder helpful.