What is eczema?
Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a recurring, non-infectious, inflammatory skin condition affecting up to 40% of South Africans at some stage throughout their lives. The condition is most common in people with a family history of an atopic disorder, including asthma or hay fever.
Atopic eczema is the most common form of the disease. With eczema the skin becomes red, dry, itchy and scaly and, in severe cases, may weep, bleed and crust over, causing the sufferer much discomfort. Sometimes the skin may become infected. The condition can also flare and subside for no apparent reason.
Although eczema affects all ages, it usually appears in early childhood (in babies between 2-6 months of age) and disappears around 6 years of age. In fact, more than half of all eczema sufferers show signs within their first 12 months of life and 80% of people develop eczema before the age of 5.
Although most children grow out of the condition, a small percentage may experience severe eczema into adulthood. The condition can not only afflict the individual sufferer, but also their family, friends and health practitioners.
What are the symptoms of eczema?
Moderate-to-severely itching skin (this symptom separates eczema from other skin rashes)
Recurring rash – dry, red, patchy or cracked skin (in infants and toddlers, the rash usually appears on the face, elbows or knees. In older children and adults, the rash appears less often on the face, and more commonly on the hands, neck, inner elbows, backs of the knees and ankles)
Skin weeping watery fluid
Rough, “leathery,” thick skin
Lesions that may be infected by bacteria or viruses
What causes eczema?
Although the exact cause of eczema is unknown, it appears to be linked to the following internal and external factors:
A family history of eczema, asthma or hay fever (the strongest predictor) – if both parents have eczema, there is an 80% chance that their children will too
Particular food and alcohol (dairy and wheat products, eggs, nuts, seafood, chemical food additives, preservatives and colourings)
Irritants – tobacco smoke, chemicals, weather (hot and humid or cold and dry conditions) and air conditioning or overheating
Allergens – house dust mites, moulds, grasses, plant pollens, foods, pets and clothing, soaps, shampoos and washing powders, cosmetics and toiletries
How long does eczema last?
Eczema symptoms tend to become less severe over time. For many sufferers, symptoms may mostly disappear, although they will tend to suffer from dry, sensitive skin.
How do you control eczema?
Although eczema is not a life-threatening disease, it can certainly affect the quality of life of a sufferer, their carer/s and family. A child’s night-time itching can cause sleepless nights for the child, their parents and siblings. It can place a significant strain upon family relationships. Flare-ups can often lead to absenteeism from school, work, personal activities and/or family obligations.