If you suffer from eczema, then all that itching is making you scratch. Here are a few tips on how to get rid of eczema and some treatments.
Whether you are unfortunate enough to be born with the skin condition or you develop it in later life, eczema can be painful, embarrassing and debilitating.
There are more than six million sufferers in the UK and, according to a survey by Lloyds Pharmacy, it can cause people to avoid intimacy, take time off work and cancel social events.
What can be done to get your skin back on track? Here are our tips from the health experts
What is eczema?
Eczema can be a painful condition
Eczema is red, flaky and itchy skin, which will often crack and weep. The most common type of eczema is atopic (caused by allergies), but people may suffer from contact eczema (flare-ups after touching allergens such as nickel or rubber), discoid (which occurs in coin-shaped patches), or seborrheic (eczema of the scalp).
Atopic eczema is in your genes, and often goes hand-in-hand with hay fever and asthma.
"You can send eczema into remission, but you’ll always have it – it’s a case of whether you have symptoms or not," says GP Dr Rob Hicks . "The aim of the treatment is to keep people free from flare-ups."
Although you may be genetically predisposed to eczema, it can only be set off by a trigger, which could be anything from nuts to dog hair, wool to cigarette smoke, and establishing what it is, is key to treatment.
1. Don't scratch
Resist the urge to scratch
Breaking the itch-scratch cycle is vital for recovery. "Scratching may bring temporary relief to the itch, but it actually triggers the release of a chemical called histamine which just causes more itching," says Dr Rob.
Scratching damages the skin and may allow bacteria that normally lives on the surface to get in and cause infection. Keep nails short, and whenever you get the urge to have a scratch, massage the itchy area with moisturiser using the pads of your fingertips.
2. Slather on the cream
Take care of your skin even when you don't have symptoms
Most people will need to try a few treatments before they find one that works for them. The best way to treat eczema is moisturising. "You need to grease yourself up like a cross-Channel swimmer!" says GP Dr Matt Piccaver . "Cover your body with moisturiser morning and night, and keep a pot in your bag to top up during the day."
Your doctor can prescribe different emollients, but not all of them will work for everyone. Apply after a shower when the skin’s still damp to help trap in moisture. Do this rigorously, even when you don’t have symptoms.
Don’t panic if your favourite cream stops working – you may need to switch between a couple of brands.
3. Visit the Doctor
Eczema can be especially painful for young children
For cases of severe eczema, your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist who can prescribe steroid cream, special bandages and wet wraps, or even ultraviolet light therapy.
Although steroids may have nasty side-effects if used long term, a short course is perfectly safe. If left untreated, severe eczema can cause lichenification, which causes the skin to become thick and leathery.
Dr Rob’s best treatment for a child suffering from eczema? "I recommend the parent gives the child a big hug to show that contact won’t hurt them. All too often people are frightened to touch sufferers because they’re worried about causing them pain, or of catching it – but eczema is not contagious," says Dr Rob.
4. Go natural
Stress can cause skin flare-ups
There are plenty of ways you can soothe your skin naturally. Make sure your sheets are cotton, which is kinder to the skin than synthetic materials – you could even try wearing cotton gloves at night to prvent scratching. Oatbran has been used for centuries to treat skin conditions.
"Take a couple of handfuls of oatbran and pop it in a muslin bag or old pair of tights. Add the bag to your bath, or hang it from your showerhead to soothe sore skin," says Dr Matt.
If a bath full of porridge doesn’t appeal, try aloe vera gel – keep it in the fridge so it’s cool and refreshing, or drink aloe vera juice. Coconut oil is favoured by many sufferers – choose an organic, cold pressed variety and rub onto damp skin.
There is often a link with your state of mind and your skin, so set aside time to relax. It is common for eczema to flare up during stressful periods, such as a break-up or starting a new job. "Find ways to reduce stress, such as meditation, yoga or therapy," says nutritionist to the stars Kim Pearson . "It’s also important to get enough sleep."
5. Watch out for Food triggers
Foods like bread and eggs can cause flare-ups
Food allergies or sensitivities can be a common trigger for many eczema sufferers. Cow’s milk is a well-known culprit, but other common problem foods include eggs, soya and wheat.
Kim Pearson suggests considering a food elimination diet, which involves cutting out common trigger foods for a period of time and then gradually reintroducing them to see if they cause a flare-up.
"Certain foods can promote inflammation – it’s worth trying to reduce your intake of sugar, refined carbohydrates, and highly processed and deep-fried foods," she says. Keep a symptom and food diary to see if you can establish any links between what you eat and the state of your eczema.
For happy skin, make sure you eat plenty of foods that are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, such as oily fish, flaxseeds and walnuts. "Opt for low glycemic, whole carbohydrate sources such as oats, quinoa and sweet potato, as well as low-sugar fruits such as berries, apples and pears," says Kim. All types of eczema can potentially be improved by changes in diet.
Stress is not always something we consider as a cause of eczema. More often than not we look for external sources like the clothes we wear. But stress can trigger a number of different issues in our body, eczema being just one of them.
Here are a few simple ways to lower your stress levels
Have a bedtime bath
Slow your life down
Take a deep breath
Escape life by reading a book, playing a computer game