ECZEMA: GETTING YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM BACK ON TRACK

Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is more than just a skin condition. It’s an indication that there’s a problem with your immune system. Eczema is said to be one of the main signs of allergy during the first days of life, with almost three out of every four children with early eczema developing asthma or hay fever later on.

The beneficial bacteria in your gut have been found to help prevent allergies. They train your immune system to distinguish between friend and foe substances and to respond appropriately. This may be one reason why they also appear to reduce eczema. Researchers have found that infants receiving probiotic supplements are half as likely to develop skin conditions.

At birth the human gastrointestinal tract is sterile. Babies get their first ‘inoculation’ of gut flora from the birth canal during childbirth. In the first days, months and years of life, a rapid colonisation of bacteria occurs until a stable indigenous gut microflora is established. Breastfeeding protects babies and assists in providing healthy gut flora, which is why it’s so crucial to your child’s health. No infant formulas can match this natural process.

The greatest benefit from probiotics, at least in terms of eczema, happens very early on in life. The preventive effect appears to be established within the first three months after birth, although it seems to be sustained during the first two years to a lesser extent.

This means that it’s essential for your baby to receive plenty of beneficial bacteria from the start, continuing through childhood and into adulthood.

Eczema appearing in adulthood is far less common and with each individual the rashes differ. Eczema may vary from very mild to severe, particularly with those individuals suffering from a dry, sensitive skin.

Eczema is extremely itchy and sufferers often scratch their skin until they draw blood, further aggravating the condition. When this happens, more inflammation and itching occur. This is called the itch-scratch cycle.

The areas that are effected are often dry, thickened or scaly. In fair-skinned individuals, these areas may at first appear red an often turn brown. In darker skinned individuals, eczema will usually affect pigmentation, making the area that is affected either darker or lighter.

In infants the condition can be quite alarming. The itchy rash can produce a nasty discharge that may lead to crusting, usually on the scalp and face, but the rash and parches can by anywhere on the body.

Eczema is not contagious and therefore does not spread from person to person. In many instances, eczema is manageable, but there is no cure.

The word eczema originates from the Greek, which means effervesce or to bubble over.

PREVENTING FLARE-UPS

‘Prevention is better than cure’ holds true when it comes to eczema. Regular moisturising is important for dry skin, especially during the dry, cold winter months. It prevents skin from cracking, which may lead to eczema and psoriasis. Substances such as washing powders, creams, cosmetics or even certain fabrics rubbing against the delicate skin may cause flare ups. Extreme temperatures also play a part in causing eczema. Severely cold weather can be very harsh on the skin, as well as excessively hot weather, where we tend to perspire more than usual.

Animals can also trigger allergic reactions, as can stress, colds and upper respiratory infections. Foods that are triggers should also be avoided.

THE CORRECT DIAGNOSIS IS IMPORTANT

Ask a pediatrician, dermatologist, healthcare professional or pharmacist to assist with a diagnosis. This is especially important in the case of babies and young children.

Many individuals who have eczema also have other allergies. Your general practitioner may want to conduct allergy testing to ascertain what the irritants and triggers are.

TREATING YOUR ECZEMA

Most of the creams prescribed for eczema are applied when the skin is damp, as this helps it retain as much moisture as possible. It’s important to moisturise correctly with well-formulated creams to relieve and prevent the dryness and itching which can lead to infection. Corticosteroids are often prescribed to lessen the inflammation.

Should the affected area become infected, antibiotic creams are used to deal with the infection and in severe cases, oral antibiotics may be used.

Severe itching can by soothed and reduced by using antihistamines or coal tar treatments. Phototherapy, where ultraviolet light is directed onto the affected area, can also bear positive results. Sunlight itself often has an amazing healing effect on eczema and regular exposure may just do the trick.

Topical immunomodulators are prescribed for the treatment of mild to moderate eczema. These are skin creams that work by altering the immune system’s response to allergens.

While there’s no cure for eczema, it can be managed effectively, either by avoiding certain situations and products or with medical treatment. Ask your general practitioner or pharmacist about the best treatment going forward.