The word eczema comes from the Greek and means ?reg;to boil over'. The main features of eczema are dry, itching, red and inflamed skin. The words eczema and dermatitis mean the same thing. Eczema affects about one in every ten people in the United Kingdom and can be mild, moderate or severe. Eczema can be a disruptive and distressing condition and can affect all areas of personal and family life.
Types, Symptoms and Causes
Atopic eczema. This is the most common type of eczema. It usually starts in babies and young children and is thought to affect up to one in every five children. The main features are itching, redness, and inflammation. Dry, scaling skin is often seen in the creases of legs, wrists and neck as well as on the face and forehead. If the skin is weeping and crusting the skin may be infected.
Atopic eczema is an inherited condition, linked to asthma and hayfever. It is thought that people with atopic conditions are sensitive to things found in their environment (allergens) which people that are not atopic find harmless. Allergens may affect the skin by direct contact, or by being breathed in or swallowed. Eczema is not contagious ? it cannot be caught from someone else.
Many people have mild to moderate eczema, which can be successfully managed. However, some people do have severe eczema, which may sometimes need hospital treatment. Three quarters of children with atopic eczema grow out of it by the time they reach their teenage years.
Contact dermatitis. There are two types of contact dermatitis: allergic and irritant. Both types have similar symptoms, though the hands are most often affected. It is sometimes referred to as occupational dermatitis due to the impact it can have on a person's occupation.
Allergic contact dermatitis. This tends to appear where the skin is in direct contact with something, for example, the earlobes in nickel allergy (if wearing earrings). It is caused when the immune system overreacts to a substance that would normally be considered harmless, and creates an allergic response. Common allergens include nickel, chromates, cobalt, rubber, formaldehyde, colophony, acrylates, epoxy, fragrances, plants, hair perm solutions, hair bleaching preparations, flour and garlic. It can be a painful and disabling condition with skin which is often dry, red, split, cracked, weeping, fluid-filled and intensely itchy, sore and stinging. If the condition is related to the person's work, a change of career is sometimes necessary. Jobs that are at high risk include hairdressing, catering, cleaning, construction, engineering, printing, health care, agriculture and horticulture.
Irritant contact dermatitis. This has virtually the same signs and symptoms as allergic contact dermatitis but is caused by repeated contact with an irritant substance such as diluted acids, diluted alkalis, solvents, soaps, detergents, metallic salts, cement, resins and cutting fluids. The most common occupations at risk of irritant contact dermatitis are those that involve wet work, for example, chefs, bakers, bartenders, caterers, cleaners, hairdressers, metal workers, surgical nurses, printers, solderers, fishermen and construction workers.
Seborrhoeic eczema. This can occur in adults, children and babies. In babies it is often associated with ?reg;cradle cap'. It usually starts on the scalp as dandruff that can progress to redness, irritation and scaling which can spread to the face and skin creases. It is a reaction to the increased production of pityrosporum ovale, a yeast that occurs normally on the skin in those areas which generally produce a lot of oil such as scalp, face and chest and back in men. Candida (which causes thrush) can also be found on the skin of people with seborrhoeic eczema and can make the condition worse.
Gravitational eczema. Also known as varicose or stasis eczema, this type appears on the lower legs and generally affects people in later life, particularly women. It is related to poor blood circulation and high blood pressure. Special care needs to be taken to make sure that legs are not knocked as the skin can become thin, fragile, shiny and flaky which can lead to leg ulcers.
The main treatment for eczema is emollients (moisturisers) and an explanation of the condition and its treatments. Other treatments for mild to moderate eczema might include topical corticosteroids (applied to the skin), antibiotics, and bandaging. People with eczema might also be given advice on how to avoid allergens, the ?reg;triggers' that make their eczema worse. Some people also find complementary medicines useful to treat their eczema.
Severe eczema might be treated with stronger topical corticosteroids, ultra-violet light therapy, drugs which suppress the immune system, such as ciclosporin, and oral steroids taken by mouth. New treatments, known as topical immunomodulators, such as tacrolimus and pimecrolimus, are now available for people with atopic eczema. Tacrolimus is licenced for patients who do not respond adequately to topical corticosteroids. Pimecrolimus is used to try and prevent flares.
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