What does eczema look and feel like?
Although eczema may look different from person to person, it is most often characterized by dry, red, extremely itchy patches on the skin. Eczema is sometimes referred to as "the itch that rashes," since the itch, when scratched, results in the appearance of the rash.
Eczema can occur on just about any part of the body; however, in infants, eczema typically occurs on the forehead, cheeks, forearms, legs, scalp, and neck. In children and adults, eczema typically occurs on the face, neck, and the insides of the elbows, knees, and ankles. In some people, eczema may "bubble up" and ooze. In others, the condition may appear more scaly, dry, and red. Chronic scratching causes the skin to take on a leathery texture because the skin thickens (lichenification).
What makes patients with eczema itch?
Many substances have been identified as itch "triggers" in patients with eczema, and triggers are not the same for every person. Many times it is difficult to identify the exact trigger that causes a flare-up. For some, it seems that rough or coarse materials coming into contact with the skin causes itchiness. For others, feeling too hot and/or sweating will cause an outbreak. Other people find that certain soaps, detergents, disinfectants, contact with juices from fresh fruits and meats, dust mites, and animal saliva and danders may trigger itching. Upper respiratory infections (caused by viruses) may also be triggers. Stress can also sometimes aggravate an existing flare-up.
How can eczema be treated?
One of the most important components of an eczema treatment routine is to prevent scratching. Because eczema is usually dry and itchy, the most common treatment is the application of lotions or creams to keep the skin as moist as possible. These treatments are generally most effective when applied directly after bathing (within three minutes is a common recommendation) so that the moisture from the bath is "locked in." Cold compresses applied directly to itchy skin can also help relieve itching. If the condition persists, worsens, or does not improve satisfactorily, another effective treatment is the application of nonprescription corticosteroid creams and ointments to reduce inflammation.
Alternatives to nonprescription corticosteroids include more potent prescription corticosteroid creams and ointments, which are effective, but which may have some side effects. To prevent side effects such as skin thinning, your doctor may limit the length of treatment time and locations where you can apply treatment. For severe flare-ups, your doctor may prescribe oral corticosteroids, but be aware that side effects including new flare-ups can develop when treatment is discontinued (this treatment is not recommended for long-term use).
What can be done for children with eczema?
Children are unique patients because it may be difficult for them to resist scratching their eczema, thereby making the condition worse. Fortunately, for mild to moderate cases, the application of moisturizer on a regular basis can be very helpful. And, in most cases, the eczema will disappear as the child ages. In the meantime, avoid as many eczema triggers as possible. Keep your child’s skin moist. After bathing, apply moisturizer within three minutes to retain the moisture in the skin. Avoid sudden temperature changes. Keep your child’s bedroom and play areas free of dust mites (a common trigger). Use mild soaps – both on your child’s skin and on your child’s clothing. Dress your child in breathable, preferably cotton, clothing.