Eczema (also known as dermatitis) is a very common skin condition caused by skin inflammation. Anyone can be affected by eczema, at any age, however it is most common in children. According to the British Association of Dermatology (BAD) nearly one in five children in the UK are affected by eczema at some stage.
Our skin acts as a strong, protective barrier against infection or irritation. When your skin is healthy, the cells are plumped up with water, which help form this barrier. The fats and oils in the skin help to retain this moisture, as well as maintaining body temperature and protecting the body from harmful bacteria and substances.
When your skin is affected by eczema, it may not produce as much fats and oils, and therefore cannot retain as much water. This means the protective barrier is not as good as it should be, allowing everyday irritants and bacteria to penetrate the skin. While some substances will remove the oil from any skin type, like soap, when you have eczema, your skin is more easily broken down. These substances can irritate your skin, causing it to crack, itch and become inflamed.
What is eczema?
Eczema is a highly individual skin condition, which can come in different forms and vary in severity. While it affects all ages, it is most common in children and typically will clear as they age. However, those who suffer with eczema as a child may see it recur later in life. In the UK, one in 12 adults have eczema.
Mild cases of eczema can leave the skin dry, red, scaly and itchy, while the more severe cases can lead to weeping, bleeding and crusting of the skin. Despite the itch, it’s important not to scratch the skin as this can cause the skin to split, and risk infection. If you suspect your skin is infected, contact your GP immediately.
While the cause of eczema is not fully understood, it is not contagious. Eczema is a genetic condition, based on the interaction between a number of genes and environmental factors. Commonly, there will be a family history of eczema or another allergic condition, such as hay fever or asthma. The symptoms often have certain triggers, though individuals will react differently to different triggers. Common triggers include soap, perfume, detergents, stress and change in temperature or weather.
According to the NHS, food allergies may play a part, especially in young children. If a food allergy is thought to be aggravating your eczema, you can seek professional support and guidance through your doctor or a qualified nutritionist. A nutrition professional may suggest you keep a food diary, to help determine whether a reaction to a certain food is making it worse.
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There is no cure for eczema, however there are a number of treatments that can be used to manage symptoms and reduce irritation. If you are suffering severe eczema, and it is making daily life difficult, it is important you speak to your medical professional.
Emollients are lotions and creams prescribed for eczema and dry skin. In their simplest form, they are made of just oil and water. Though they may also contain antibacterial chemicals to protect against infection, or steroids to help reduce inflammation. Emollients can help reduce symptoms by creating a protective barrier on the skin. It adds moisture and can be a calming, soothing treatment for inflamed and irritated skin.
Often emollient products (available as lotions, ointments, creams and soap substitutes) are for continuous use, even after symptoms have cleared. By keeping the skin moisturised, the skin’s natural protective barrier is supported. Emollients can also help relieve any itching of the skin.
Steroid creams (such as hydrocortisone) are a treatment option for eczema sufferers as they can help reduce inflammation and swelling. While you can purchase steroid creams over-the-counter, it is important you understand where to apply the cream and how much. If you’re suffering from severe eczema, please consult your doctor for more information and advice.
There are some self-care techniques encouraged that can help you manage eczema and keep it as undisruptive as possible. Not all infections can be avoided, but it is important you continue with your life and enjoy yourself. There will be times however, where you may benefit from covering the skin, to prevent irritation and infection. For example, when exercising, at work or in contact with animals or dirt.
Self-care techniques include:
- Ensure you wear sunscreen in warm weather.
- Use an emollient daily to keep the skin moisturised.
- Wear cool cotton or silk-fibre clothing (natural fibres allow the skin to breathe and stay cool).
- Keep nails short and clean to avoid breaking the skin when itching.
- Keep your home cool, as hot temperatures increases the itchy feeling.
- Eczema can get worse when stressed or anxious, so consider relaxation techniques such as meditation.
- Check ingredients of skincare products before use.
Other treatment options include antihistamines, paste bandages and wet wraps. If these treatments do not have an effect, you may be referred to a dermatologist for further treatment.
Nutrition and skin health
While eczema and diet is not directly linked, nutrition does play a part in maintaining your overall skin health. Your skin will naturally reflect your body’s internal needs, such as the nutrients it requires. If your diet is deficient in an essential vitamin or nutrient, your skin will probably be showing this.
When it comes to healthy eating, it is thought that certain vitamins and nutrients can have a positive effect on your skin health. Some of the key nutrients and vitamins believed to be essential in maintaining good skin health include zinc, essential fatty acids (EFAs), selenium and beta-carotene. Of course, many of these vitamins and nutrients can be found in food, and this is where a nutrition professional can help you.
If you’re looking to change your diet, it is important you seek professional support before making any drastic changes. All of us are different and what your body needs, may be different to someone else’s. A nutrition professional can help you understand what foods may be causing your skin issues and support you in the new journey. Alcohol, salt and caffeine for example can negatively affect your skin, so if your diet is high in these, you may need to make some changes.
A nutrition professional can also advise you on the nutrients your diet is lacking. They can teach you what makes a balanced diet, and help you implement this into your daily life. While a balanced diet is key in optimal health and well-being, there are some foods that are especially rich in the vitamins essential for good skin health.
- Berries are rich in antioxidants and a source of vitamin C.
- Carrots are high in beta-carotene, and help the body produce skin-saving vitamin A.
- Avocados are rich in beta-carotene, vitamin E and B-complex vitamins. They’re also considered a ‘healthy fat’ which help to hydrate the skin.
- Salmon and walnuts are both great sources of EFAs, walnuts also contain copper, which helps promote collagen production in the skin.
For more information on the benefits of these foods, and how you can welcome these into your meals, please speak to a nutrition professional.
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