Those who live with the chronic skin condition known as atopic eczema are well aware of its maddening and sometimes debilitating effects: the constantly itchy skin, the rashes and blisters, the sleepless nights, the embarrassing skin flaking.
At times eczema symptoms can seem to recede, but brief relief can be shattered by painful “flare-ups” that erupt without warning. Worse, while treatments for atopic eczema can help ease the symptoms, there’s no cure.
What Is Eczema?
When people use the term “eczema” they are usually referring to atopic dermatitis, which is the most common type. Atopic conditions are those that involve the immune system that include hay fever, asthma, and food allergies. Dermatitis refers to skin inflammation. While similar, eczema should not be confused with psoriasis.
Eczema is the umbrella name for a group of conditions that cause dry skin that becomes itchy, inflamed, flaky, or have a red, rash-like appearance. It’s a fairly common skin ailment: according to the National Eczema Association, more than 31.6 million Americans have one or more of the seven types of eczema, with contact dermatitis being the second most common. One in 10 individuals will develop eczema during their lifetime.
- Scaly rashes
- Rashes in the creases of the elbows or knees or the nape of the neck
- Rashes that cover much of the body
- Very dry skin on affected areas
- Permanently itchy rashes
- Skin infections
Although eczema itself is not a life-threatening disease, and has no connection with incidences of skin cancer, it can have debilitating effects on quality of life. While researchers know that eczema is caused by allergic reactions to a wide array of irritants and allergens ranging from clothing, food, pet dander, dust mites, even the weather, they don’t know exactly why. As such, there is no cure for eczema.
Fortunately, there are a number of treatment options that can bring relief. Your doctor or dermatologist can offer advice on over-the-counter treatments or more aggressive approaches that include prescription medications, light baths, and wet wrap therapy.
According to the National Eczema Association, some of the more common treatments include:
Simple Self Care and Hygiene: First off, your doctor will emphasize the importance of consistent, aggressive skin care. Those with eczema should keep their skin clean and take frequent lukewarm baths or showers, applying moisturizer and topical medications immediately after.
If regular bathing and moisturizing fails to soothe sensitive skin, doctors may seek to reduce inflammation by prescribing a topical ointment with steroids. For stubborn cases of severe atopic dermatitis, systemic medications that fight entire body inflammation may be needed.
Wet Wrap Therapy: For intense eczema flares, wet wraps treatments where moisturized skin is wrapped in a damp fabric can bring quick relief. Its goal is to restore the skin barrier by rehydrating the skin and helping medications soak in deeper and more effectively. It can also be help heal abrasions and dry areas, reduce water loss, and treat skin infections.
Hydrocortisone Topical Corticosteroids (Steroids): One of the most commonly prescribed medications for all types of eczema is a topical hydrocortisone corticosteroid, which can ease redness and reduce inflammation and itching so that skin can heal. Corticosteroids have been used for more than 50 years in topical medications to treat various kinds of inflammatory skin conditions.
Moisturizers: Whether prescription or OTC, or in ointments, creams, or lotions, keeping the skin moist and supple is key in combatting eczema. While plenty of brand-name OTC products are out there, look for those that are recommended to treat eczema. Be sure to use a thick layer of moisturizer within three minutes of bathing to lock in moisture. Apply prescription topical medications as directed before moisturizing.
Antihistamines: These drugs relieve itching and their sleep-inducing effects can bring about better sleep when taken at night. Doctors will recommend Benadryl as an OTC option or prescribe something stronger.
Antibiotics: Constant scratching leads to the risk of a skin infection as bacteria gets underneath the already-damaged skin. Dermatologists will often advise using antibiotics to treat bacterial skin infections. However, they are used primarily to kill germs and bacteria and will not relieve itching or reduce inflammation.
Phototherapy or Ultraviolet B Therapy: In this unique form of treatment, patients stand in a UVB or UVA light box that mimics natural sunlight, increasing vitamin D production while calming itchiness by curbing the body’s inflammatory responses.