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What is Eczema?

Aug 17, 2007
Eczema actually refers to any inflammation of the skin and can take a multitude of forms. However, many people are referring to Atopic Dermatitis (AD) when they say the word eczema. Approximately 15% of the global population, 17 million of which are Americans, suffers from eczema.

It begins in childhood, and quite often goes into relapse for periods. Some of these remission periods can last many years, much to the relief of the patient. Eczema is not contagious but can only be controlled, not cured.

AD tends to cycle through periods of flare ups and remission throughout the lifetime of the patient and science has yet to understand the exact cause of this form of eczema. It is understood that genetics play a factor in combination with various outside triggers (irritants, allergens, stress, and other things).

The immune system also seems to play a part in AD. When people with eczema come into contact with one of their triggers, inflammation producing chemicals are released into the skin that immediately cause swelling, redness, and itching. The system tends to over produce these chemicals and does not quit once the trigger is not there.

Each person has symptoms that may look different, often very different. The most common symptoms are itching, red skin, silvery scaling, and slight swelling. Often you will find the affected area to be a bit feverish. Scratching tends to cause breaks in the skin which result in open lesions that drain clear pus and crust over with a honey yellow crust.

You may see tiny blister like pustules (like you see in poison ivy, which is a form of eczema). These tend to break when scratched and spread because of the allergen which is still held there. In cases like poison ivy, contagion is possible simply because so many other people are allergic to it.

Contagion of poison ivy is only possible through direct contact with broken blisters in the affected area. Any part of the body may be affected and many of the forms of eczema are directly linked to certain body areas. AD is not so specifically linked. It may show up anywhere, but is most prominent on the face, neck, torso, and extremities (arms, legs, hands, and feet).

The insides of the elbow and the back of the knee are the number one locations for the disease to manifest itself.

Itching is caused from the affected area coming in contact with a variety of things that irritate it, such as clothing, soaps, chemicals, etc. These things are referred to as itch triggers.

Eczema tends to affect both men and women equally, but affects Caucasians more than other races. Age sometimes looks like a factor as children are more often diagnosed than older people, but it needs to be taken into account that just a few decades ago, the disease was often misdiagnosed.

Many adults that have recently been diagnosed may have had manifestations as children, but were not correctly informed as to the condition. Eczema most often appears during early years, infancy and toddler stages, of a individuals life.

People affected tend to have a family history of allergic reactions (hay fever and asthma) or eczema. Many patients also display respiratory ailments due to allergies. A daily antihistamine may be of help to eczema sufferers because of this.

Treatment varies, but generally patients are prescribed a topical (applied to the surface of the skin) medication. The most prescribed topical medications are corticosteroids and have a variety of strengths. If topical treatment does not relieve the symptoms, patients may receive phototherapy, with is a concentration of specialized UV rays focused on the affected area.

Third phase treatment or treatment for very server cases is prescribed systemic medications. These are medications that are taken into the body, whether orally or by injection. Systemic medications tend to be steroids. Researchers are currently working on new possibilities in treatment.

Things that patients can do to help keep their eczema under control include:

Keep the skin clean using mild soap that is fragrance and dye free, but do not over bathe. A cream or petroleum based moisturizer should be applied to wet skin after baths and any other contact with water (such as hand washing). Pat skin dry instead of rubbing.
Recognize and avoid triggers
Avoid stress
Wear 100% cotton next to the skin
Cleanse the skin as soon as possible after perspiring, remembering to apply moisturizer
Avoid sudden changes in temperature as much as possible
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