Close up of a person's forearms with angry looking eczema. Living with Eczema: Symptoms & Triggers

Living with Eczema: Symptoms & Triggers

While there is no cure, understanding its symptoms, triggers, and available relief strategies can help individuals living with eczema.
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Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a chronic skin condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Characterised by itchy, inflamed skin, living with eczema can cause significant discomfort and impact a person’s quality of life. While there is no cure, understanding its symptoms, triggers, and available relief strategies can help individuals effectively manage the condition and find relief.


Living with Eczema: What are the Symptoms?

It can manifest in various ways, causing discomfort and distress for those who are living with eczema. Let’s delve deeper into the common symptoms associated with this skin condition.

Intense Itching

One of the hallmark symptoms of eczema is persistent itching. The affected areas may feel incredibly itchy, prompting the urge to scratch, which can worsen the condition. Scratching can further damage the skin’s protective barrier, leading to increased inflammation and the risk of infection.

Redness and Inflammation

Eczema-prone skin often appears red and inflamed. The affected areas may exhibit a rash-like appearance, with patches of redness that can range in intensity. Inflammation occurs due to the immune system’s response to triggers and can contribute to the discomfort experienced by individuals with eczema.

Dryness and Flaking

Eczema can cause the skin to become dehydrated. Affected areas often feel rough, and scaly and may exhibit peeling or flaking skin. This dryness can exacerbate itching, as the skin’s natural moisture barrier becomes compromised.

Cracked and Oozing Skin

In severe cases, eczema can lead to the development of cracks or fissures in the affected skin. These cracks can be painful and may sometimes ooze fluid or bleed. The open sores are vulnerable to infection, requiring careful attention and proper treatment.

Swelling and Thickened Skin

Prolonged inflammation can result in swelling, causing the affected areas to appear puffy or swollen. Additionally, with chronic eczema, the skin may thicken over time, leading to a rough and leathery texture.

Sensitivity and Irritation

People with eczema often have heightened skin sensitivity, making it prone to irritation from various triggers. The skin may react strongly to certain substances, such as soaps, detergents, fragrances, or even clothing fabrics, causing further discomfort and aggravation.

It’s important to note that eczema symptoms can vary in severity and presentation from person to person. Some individuals may experience occasional flare-ups, while others may have persistent symptoms. Factors such as age, genetics, and environmental influences can also impact the symptom profile.


What Causes Eczema?

Genetic Predisposition

Genetics plays a significant role in eczema development. People with a family history of eczema, asthma, or allergies are more likely to develop the condition. Specific gene mutations can disrupt the skin’s barrier function, making it more susceptible to irritants and allergens, leading to inflammation and eczema symptoms.

Impaired Skin Barrier Function

In individuals with eczema, the skin’s protective barrier is compromised. The outermost layer of the skin, known as the stratum corneum, fails to retain moisture effectively and prevent irritants from entering. This allows allergens, microbes, and other substances to penetrate the skin easily, triggering an immune response and leading to inflammation.

Abnormal Immune System Response

Eczema is associated with an overactive immune response. The immune system in individuals with eczema reacts to triggers, such as allergens or irritants, leading to inflammation and skin damage. This abnormal immune response contributes to persistent itching, redness, and other symptoms associated with eczema.

Environmental Factors

Several environmental factors can influence eczema development and trigger flare-ups. We’ll look at these more in-depth in the next section, but in a nutshell, these include:

  • Allergens. Pollens, dust mites, pet dander, mould and certain foods can act as allergens and provoke an immune response in susceptible individuals.

  • Irritants. Harsh soaps, detergents, fragrances, and chemicals in cleaning products or personal care items can irritate the skin and worsen eczema symptoms.

  • Weather Conditions. Extreme weather conditions, such as cold and dry air or high humidity, can aggravate eczema.

  • Microbes. Certain bacteria, viruses, or fungi can cause or exacerbate eczema symptoms, especially in cases of infected eczema.

Dysfunctional Skin Microbiome

The skin is home to a diverse community of microorganisms known as the skin microbiome. In individuals with eczema, there is an imbalance in the composition of these microorganisms. This imbalance may contribute to inflammation and compromise the skin’s ability to maintain a healthy barrier.


Living with Eczema: What Can Trigger it?

Allergens

Allergens are substances that can trigger an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. Common allergens that can exacerbate eczema include:

  • Pollen. Airborne pollens from grass, trees, or weeds.

  • Dust Mites. Microscopic organisms are commonly found in bedding, carpets, and upholstered furniture.

  • Pets. Shed skin cells and fur from cats, dogs, or other animals.

  • Mould. Fungi thrive in damp environments like bathrooms or basements.

Irritants

Irritants are substances that directly irritate the skin, leading to eczema flare-ups. Common irritants include:

  • Harsh Soaps and Detergents. Fragranced soaps, bubble baths, and laundry detergents contain chemicals that strip the skin of its natural oils.

  • Household Cleaners. Products with strong chemicals, such as bleach or ammonia.

  • Fragrances. Perfumes, colognes, scented lotions, or products containing artificial fragrances.

  • Certain Fabrics. Rough or scratchy fabrics like wool or synthetic materials can cause friction and irritation.

Weather Conditions

Environmental factors, particularly extreme weather conditions, can trigger eczema flare-ups. Common weather-related triggers include:

  • Low Humidity. Dry air can lead to increased skin dryness and worsen eczema symptoms.

  • Cold Temperatures. Exposure to cold weather can cause skin dryness and irritation.

  • Hot Temperatures. Excessive heat and sweat can trigger itching and discomfort in eczema-prone individuals.

Stress

Emotional stress and anxiety can have a significant impact on eczema symptoms. Stress can disrupt the immune system and trigger inflammatory responses, leading to eczema flare-ups or intensifying existing symptoms.

Allergic Reactions

Eczema can also be triggered by direct contact with certain substances that cause an allergic reaction. Common allergens that may provoke eczema include:

  • Fabrics. Rough or synthetic materials, such as polyester or nylon.

  • Metals. Nickel is the most common cause of metal allergy. It is commonly found in jewellery, belt buckles, or zippers.

  • Latex. Rubber products, such as gloves or elastic bands.

Identifying and avoiding these triggers can help manage eczema more effectively. It is important to keep track of potential triggers and make lifestyle adjustments accordingly. Allergy testing or patch testing may be useful to pinpoint specific allergens or irritants.

Remember, each individual’s triggers can vary, so it’s essential to be vigilant and consult with a healthcare professional, preferably a dermatologist, for personalised advice and guidance on managing eczema triggers effectively. They can help create a tailored treatment plan to reduce flare-ups and improve the overall quality of life for those living with eczema.


Living with Eczema: Finding Relief

Living with eczema can be challenging, but various strategies and lifestyle adjustments can help alleviate symptoms and provide relief. Here are some effective ways to manage eczema and promote healthier skin:

Moisturise Regularly

Keeping the skin well-hydrated is crucial for managing eczema. Apply a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic moisturiser to damp skin after bathing or showering. Moisturisers help lock in moisture, soothe dryness, and strengthen the skin’s natural barrier.

Gentle Cleansing

Opt for mild, non-soap cleansers and lukewarm water when bathing. Avoid using hot water and harsh soaps that can strip away natural oils and irritate the skin. Gently pat the skin dry with a soft towel instead of rubbing it.

Avoid Triggers

Identify and avoid triggers that worsen your eczema symptoms. Common triggers include certain fabrics, irritants in skincare products, allergens, and environmental factors like extreme temperatures or humidity. 

Clothing and Fabrics

Choose soft, breathable fabrics like cotton and avoid rough or scratchy materials that can irritate the skin. Opt for loose-fitting clothing that allows airflow and minimises friction.

Stress Management

Stress can worsen eczema symptoms. Practise stress management techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation or yoga. Engaging in hobbies and activities that help you relax and cope with stress can positively impact eczema management.

Allergy Management

If you have known allergies that trigger your eczema, take steps to manage them effectively. This may involve avoiding specific foods, implementing dust mite prevention measures, or seeking allergy treatments under the guidance of an allergist.

Avoid Scratching

Itchiness is a common symptom of eczema, but scratching can exacerbate the condition and lead to skin damage. Keep nails short and wear gloves during sleep if scratching is a concern. Use cold compresses or a cool, wet cloth on the itchy areas to soothe the skin.

Medical Treatment

Consult a dermatologist who can guide suitable topical treatments for eczema. They may prescribe medicated creams, ointments, or oral medications to manage inflammation and relieve symptoms during flare-ups.

Wet Wrap Therapy

Wet wrap therapy involves applying moisturisers or prescription medications to the affected areas and wrapping them with damp bandages or clothing. This technique helps lock in moisture and deliver the medication, providing relief for severe eczema.

Support and Education

Joining support groups or seeking educational resources on living with eczema can provide valuable insights, tips, and emotional support from others going through similar experiences. Learning more about eczema can empower you.

Remember, finding the right combination of strategies may require trial and error, as what works for one person may not work for another. It’s important to work closely with a healthcare professional, preferably a dermatologist, to develop a personal treatment plan based on your needs and the severity of your eczema.


Conclusion

Living with eczema can be challenging, but understanding the condition, identifying triggers, and implementing effective strategies will help you find relief and improve your quality of life. Eczema is a complex condition influenced by genetic factors, impaired skin barrier function, immune system responses, and environmental triggers.

It’s essential to moisturise regularly, use gentle cleansers, and avoid triggers such as irritants, allergens, and extreme weather conditions. Stress management techniques and allergy control can also play a crucial role in symptom relief. Seeking medical treatment and exploring options like wet wrap therapy can provide additional support.

Remember, eczema is a highly personal condition, and what works for one person may not work for another. Consult with a healthcare professional, preferably a dermatologist, who can tailor a treatment plan to your specific needs.

While eczema isn’t curable, these strategies can help alleviate symptoms, reduce inflammation, and improve overall skin health for people living with eczema. By taking a proactive approach, seeking support, and staying informed, you can effectively manage eczema and enjoy a better quality of life.

Sources:

  1. Atopic eczema: genetics or environment?
  2. Skin barrier function, epidermal proliferation and differentiation in eczema
  3. Epithelial barrier dysfunctions in atopic dermatitis: a skin–gut–lung model linking microbiome alteration and immune dysregulationist
  4. What causes worsening of eczema? A systematic review
  5. Social and psychosocial effects on atopic eczema symptom severity – a scoping review of observational studies published from 1989 to 2019
  6. Metal Allergy and Systemic Contact Dermatitis: An Overview
  7. The problem of atopic eczema: aetiological clues from the environment and lifestyles
  8. ETFAD/EADV Eczema task force 2020 position paper on diagnosis and treatment of atopic dermatitis in adults and children
  9. A Comprehensive Review of the Treatment of Atopic Eczema
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