Eczema Explained

What is eczema?
Eczema is a condition characterised by intense dry skin. From the basal layer of the skin, it takes between 21 and 28 days for a new cell to reach the surface, mature and die. There it acts as a vital barrier against external organisms.

In normal skin, this process is continual, and described as ‘cell turnover’: the rate at which old cells die and new ones are replacing them. Throughout this cycle, moisture rich lipids in the basal layer help keep the maturing cells plump, healthy and resistant to environmental aggressors, including infections.

Skin affected by eczema has a severely reduced lipid content. Without the supply of internal moisture, cell turnover slows dramatically. Any new cells produced at the basal layer are dehydrated and will not function properly. As a result, the skin becomes very dry, red, scaly and can crack and weep, exposing the vulnerable lower layers of the skin.

What’s the difference between eczema and dermatitis?In short, eczema is derived from the Greek word ‘to boil’ (any sufferer will tell you that this is a very fitting description) while dermatitis is a Latin word meaning ‘skin illness’. Both effectively refer to the same condition. However, ‘eczema’ and ‘dermatitis’ tend to be used separately to define the nature of individual cases. For instance, ‘dermatitis’ is more commonly used to describe eczema that occurs as a result of an allergic reaction, to nickel in jewellery for example. ‘Eczema’ is more often used to describe these symptoms when they start in childhood and have no identifiable cause.

Who suffers from eczema?
Anyone can suffer from the symptoms of eczema. In adulthood, it is often triggered by exposure to a skin irritant. Common culprits include washing-up liquids and detergents, nickel in jewellery and harsh chemicals such as those used by professional hairdressers. In these instances, the condition is often described as ‘contact dermatitis’, and once the irritant substance is eliminated, the condition usually subsides, although there can be a period of sensitivity while the skin is recovering.

Childhood eczema is a long-term condition for which there is no cure. It is distressing for the children and their parents, not least because it is often accompanied by the life threatening condition asthma. It tends to improve with age, but adults who suffered from childhood eczema are likely to have dry, sensitive skin throughout their lives, and will need to consider their skin care products carefully.

How is eczema treated?

Because there is no cure for eczema, treatment involves a management programme geared towards minimising symptoms. Topical steroids may be prescribed, but emollient therapy is now considered to be the most appropriate long-term course of action. This entails replacing the skin’s lost lipids with moisturising emollient products, including creams, lotions, and special bath and shower additives. Contact with all forms of skin irritants, including soap, bubble bath and even plain water, should be ideally be avoided.

Brand such as La Roche-Posay and A-Derma have products suitable for treating Eczema and other dry skin conditions

Where can I get further information?

The National Eczema Society
163 Eversholt Street
NW1 1 BU

Tel: 020 7388 4097