Dealing with eczema

June 12, 2013 By Susan Levine, M.D., M.P.H.

Our largest body organ and the one we take for granted is our skin. Sun, wind, rain, pollutants, irritants and other environmental factors give us a beating every day. Is it any wonder, then, that from time to time a rash or inflammation may appear?

For the estimated 35 million Americans who suffer from eczema, the itchy, splotchy, flaky, dry and red “rash” is more than an occasional side effect due to environmental overexposure. Also known as atopic dermatitis, this chronic, non-contagious condition cyclically flares and subsides, causing frustration and embarrassment for those living with it. The good news is there are ways to effectively soothe and treat eczema.

Eczema most commonly first appears in children under the age of 5, many showing symptoms before the age of 1. Most of these children will outgrow their eczema by early adulthood, though some may always live with the condition well into senior maturity. Studies show there is a relation between children with eczema and a family history of skin sensitivities, asthma, or food allergies to dairy, soy, gluten and nuts. However, these are not a necessary precondition.

For people with eczema, the layer of skin acting as a barrier to lock in moisture is weakened, prompting skin inflammation and appearance of dry patches. Frustration and discomfort can be averted if these common aggravating triggers are avoided:

• Foods, pollens, pet dander and dust that cause the individual an allergic reaction and/or exacerbate the eczema
• Wearing rough fabrics like wool or synthetic fibers
• Not washing recently purchased clothing or linens before use
• Excessively dry or humid environments
• Allowing sweat to dry after physical activity
• Hot or very cold water
• Stress
• Fabric softeners and dryer sheets
• Perfumes and/or scented soaps and lotions

The best treatments to combat and manage eczema are also readily accessible in your home or local pharmacy. Always discuss treatments with your physician or child's pediatrician to determine the best combination of remedies listed below:

• Rinse all clothing and linens thoroughly, twice if possible.
• Wear clothing made of cotton and other natural, soft fibers.
• Bathing/showering in warm water, no longer than 15 minutes. Colloidal oatmeal baths have also been known to reduce inflammation.
• Pat dry after bathing or swimming.
• Moisturize with thick lotions for sensitive skin or natural oils throughout the day, especially after bathing/showering when skin is most able to absorb the moisturizer.
• Use a humidifier during winter.
• If exacerbated by heat and humidity, create a cool, drier environment with the use of an air conditioner or electric fans to circulate air.
• With physician approval, apply non-prescription topical ointments containing hydrocortisone. Severe cases may require a prescription ointment.
• Include stress-relieving techniques into your day like slow breathing or yoga poses.

By knowing what to avoid and which treatments can aid in the condition's management, the itch, pain and self-consciousness associated with eczema no longer has to get in the way of your life.

Dr. Susan Levine is a member of The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HOCC) medical staff.