Itchy Skin: Causes and Treatment of Atopic Eczema

dry cracked mud like dry skin associated with atopic eczema

As I write this, it’s taking all the self-control I possess not to stop typing and give in to my itching skin and have a good, long scratch.

For the past three weeks I’ve been suffering with a flare-up of atopic eczema on my chest and the backs of my knees. It’s been a few years since I’ve had a flare-up of my eczema symptoms as bad as this and I have to say, it’s driving me crazy.

Symptoms of Eczema

My skin is dry and red and it burns.  At one point I even had little blisters all over my chest. But the worst part of it all is the incessant itching.  No amount of scratching can ease it and it’s itchy night and day. It affects my concentration. It affects my sleep. Sometimes all I can focus on is my itching, crawling, burning skin.

The type of eczema I have is atopic eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis (‘atopic’ means sensitivity to allergens), which is the most common form of eczema. It mainly affects children but adults are affected too.

What Causes Atopic Eczema?

I’ve never given much thought to my eczema before, but the severity of this flare-up prompted me to do some research into the causes and treatment of eczema. The exact causes of atopic eczema are unknown, but it seems to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

The Genetic Factor in Eczema

Research suggests that atopic eczema is largely an inherited condition. If one parent has atopic eczema there’s a 60% chance that you’ll develop the condition. If both parents have atopic eczema your chances of inheriting the condition leap to 80%.

According to The National Eczema Society website, eczema affects 5 million children and adults in the UK every year, so clearly I am in good company.

Recently, researchers at Oregon State University discovered that the main genetic cause of atopic eczema could be triggered by a malfunctioning protein known as Ctip2.

In an article in the Daily Mail, Arup Indra, an associate professor in the OSU College of Pharmacy, said:

‘In these studies, we’ve basically shown that inadequate Ctip2 is reducing the lipids in skin that it needs to stay healthy, protect itself and perform its function.  At the same time this can allow unwanted formation of proteins that trigger inflammation.’

What this means is that as the skin loses moisture, it loses its ability to resist inflammation at exactly the same time as inflammation levels are rising.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for eczema and medical science still has a long way to go in understanding the genetic causes of eczema and researching treatments.

However, one way to manage eczema is to understand and avoid potential allergens and triggers.

Environmental Factors Which May Trigger Eczema

If you are genetically susceptible to developing atopic eczema you are likely to develop the condition when you are exposed to certain allergens in the environment. These can include:

  • house dust mites
  • pet fur
  • pollen
  • Dust or sand
  • Cigarette smoke
  • High pollution levels

Food allergens such as eggs, milk, nuts, soya, fish and wheat may also trigger the development of eczema.

Certain factors may make eczema worse, although they do not cause it. Possible triggers include:

  • Dry skin
  • Hormonal changes in women
  • Long, hot baths or showers
  • Stress
  • Sweating
  • Rapid changes in temperature
  • Very cold, dry weather
  • Changing seasons
  • Low humidity
  • Solvents, cleaners, soaps or detergents
  • Wool or man-made fabrics or clothing.

Looking at that long list of triggers it’s impossible to work out which triggers were responsible for my current flare-up.  It could have been so many things, especially as we’re experiencing what could be the longest winter for fifty years here in the UK.

Treatment for Atopic Eczema

The most effective treatment for eczema is to keep the skin moisturised with an emollient lotion. This gives temporary relief by cooling the skin and prevents it from drying out and cracking. The drier the skin the higher the risk of infection if the skin breaks so it’s important to keep it moisturised.

My doctor has prescribed me Dermol 500 lotion which can be used as a soap substitute as well as a soothing skin lotion and I’ve been applying it several times a day.

I’ve also been taking an anti-histamine for hay fever since the end of February which is meant to help with itching, but I don’t think it’s helping that much. The next step may be to return to my GP and ask him to prescribe something stronger like a steroid cream to help calm the skin irritation.

But for now, I’m doing all I can to stop myself from scratching my skin raw. Easier said than done. The itching is all I can think about.

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