Many of us have had it—the red, dry skin, plus an itch that can nearly drive you bonkers.
It’s eczema, and while it can be difficult to deal with, there are many ways to get sweet relief.
“Eczema has been called the ‘itch that rashes,’” says Herbert Allen, MD, chair of the dermatology department at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. He explains that the sweat ducts can become blocked by biofilms created by Staphylococci bacteria normally found on the skin. This process activates “the immune system, which then leads to the ‘itch’ that makes the rash,” Allen says.
Skin affected by eczema can become inflamed and develop white patches, says Jennifer Burns, NMD, naturopathic doctor and owner of the Bienetre Center in Phoenix, Arizona. “It can be very painful with itching, boils and bleeding.”
According to Allen, eczema can occur anywhere on the body but tends to show up in the flexures, or wherever the skin folds. People of all ages are susceptible, although, as Allen notes, “It may appear worse in infants because it involves the face.”
Why Eczema Develops
Burns says eczema has a multitude of possible causes, including malnutrition, bacterial infection, genetics, food allergies, hay fever and smoking, and by having dry skin in a dry climate.
In fact, “Sweating is one of the leading preceding factors for eczema,” explains Allen. “So days that are warm and humid are likely to be more associated with it.” But because dry skin is vulnerable, “winter can also be a time for eczema.”
Burns adds that in addition to being more prevalent during drier weather, eczema can also appear more during allergy seasons. “When the air becomes drier, then the eczema spreads more,” she says. In addition, hormone changes can make eczema worse, so women who are going through various kinds of hormonal changes may be more affected.
Eczema no longer carries a stigma as it did a number of years ago, says Burns, who adds, “I think we all have been a bit more educated on the condition.” One of the biggest myths is the idea that one could “catch” eczema by touching someone who had the condition; as Burns puts it, “We know better these days.”
For the most part, eczema is not harmful. However, Burns says, continuing to scratch the itch could break open the skin, which could then cause an infection.
Allen adds that having eczema can be quite disturbing psychologically because the itch can be, in some cases, both tormenting as well as constant. For both reasons, it’s important to treat eczema right away.
Easing the Itch
To prevent eczema, Burns suggests getting a humidifier to keep the air in your home from getting too dry, patting yourself dry instead of rubbing after a bath or shower, wearing cotton, using mild soap and learning what your specific triggers are. Allen says that if you’re prone to eczema you should “moisturize like mad.”
Contrary to popular belief, washing a patch of eczema will not help; Allen says this can actually cause more problems.
“The single more important thing is to do less,” he says. “I suggest to patients to cut back one level in bathing—if bathing twice daily, do it once. If daily, make it every other day. I advise using soap only in the armpits and private areas—water only for the remainder of the skin.”
Burns says an anti-inflammatory diet may help; focus on fresh produce and such omega-3 sources as cold-water fish (like salmon) and flax seeds. She adds that eating a more alkaline diet, getting plenty of rest and taking high-quality probiotics can ease inflammation, as can slippery elm, aloe vera, omega-3, coconut oil or cod liver oil.
“Herbs that help are gotu kola, hawthorn, echinacea, horsetail, thuja, aloe, myrrh, burdock and yellow dock,” Burns notes. Conversely, food allergens—which for many people include eggs, dairy, wheat and sugar—can worsen inflammation.
While stress doesn’t cause eczema, Burns says it can raise cortisol levels, which can make the inflammation worse. “Decreasing stress or responding to stress differently can help to keep cortisol under control, which can help decrease the inflammation process,” she adds.
Eczema can be itchy and unsightly. Fortunately, there are natural ways to ease this irritating condition.