What is Eczema?

12 Jan 2023
Navin Khosla medical writer
Navin Khosla
Medical Writer
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If you’re struggling with eczema flare-ups, it can be hard to find relief. It may feel like you’re stuck in an endless cycle of irritation, dryness, and itching. Don’t worry – there is hope! By understanding common triggers and irritants of eczema flare-ups and taking steps to avoid them (or reduce their impacts where possible), you can start finding more comfort. In this blog post, we’ll discuss some important information about what might be causing your eczema flare-ups so that you can start making positive changes towards better skin health!

What is Eczema?

Eczema also known as atopic eczema is a type of chronic skin condition that can cause itching, redness, scaling, and irritation. It typically appears on the face, neck, or limbs and can be a source of discomfort and embarrassment. Eczema can affect anyone at any age, but it is often quite common in young children.

Different types of eczema are classified based on their specific symptoms:

  • Atopic dermatitis is the most common type and can present with dark patches or intensely itchy bumps and usually begins in early childhood
  • Contact dermatitis is caused by an allergic reaction which occurs when coming into contact with an allergic substance. It may cause rashes in specific areas of skin which have been exposed to the allergen
  • Seborrheic dermatitis appears as yellowish scales circulating areas that get oily such as the scalp, forehead, eyebrows, nose, and ears (caused by hormonal changes or oily skin)

Symptoms of Eczema

Common symptoms of eczema include dry, itchy skin that can be scaly, flaky, and thick. The intensity of itching may increase or decrease over time, which can often lead to the person scratching these affected parts of the skin causing them to become further inflamed and painful.

In more severe cases, there may be oozing and crusting of the skin as well as swelling in certain areas causing skin infections and blisters. Eczema may also have an impact on a person’s physical wellness including fatigue related to lack of sleep due to itchiness from the condition. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms then it is important to seek medical advice from your healthcare provider immediately.

While the exact cause of eczema is not known, healthcare professionals believe it to be linked to an overactive immune system. When a person’s immune system is overly responsive, it can lead to inflammation in the skin barrier. This inflammation causes flakiness, redness, and itchiness that commonly occurs in people with eczema. Furthermore, other conditions or triggers may contribute to or increase your risk of having eczema. Let’s take a look at them.

Eczema triggers and irritants

Dry skin

Dry skin is the most common symptom of eczema and can be a trigger for flare-ups. When skin lacks adequate moisture, it can become dry and cracked, leading to inflammation and irritation. Without proper rehydration and protection, these areas of dry skin can break out into an eczema flare. To minimise this risk of developing eczema from dry skin, it is important to use daily moisturisers, avoid long hot showers that can strip away natural oils, and wear breathable fabrics. A dermatologist can assess your risk for developing eczema from dry skin and provide personalised recommendations on how to keep your skin properly hydrated.

Detergents and soaps

Soaps, bubble baths and detergents are incredibly common household items. Unfortunately, these products can often trigger eczema flare-ups in some individuals. When people with eczema come into contact with irritants such as fragrances, perfumes and preservatives commonly used in soaps and detergents, their skin may become red, itchy, or inflamed as a result of an immune reaction.

Additionally, harsh cleansers in soap can remove the protective layer of oils from the skin, allowing more irritants to penetrate beneath the surface. To help combat this issue, it’s best to opt for soap-free cleansers like those with mild ingredients such as oatmeal and ceramides and to try using unscented laundry detergents. It is also important to take lukewarm showers since very hot water can strip skin of its natural moisture barrier.

With proper precautions and a bit of trial-and-error, you can find the right balance of avoiding substance triggers while also keeping your skin clean.

Skincare

Skincare products can have an impact on eczema in several ways. Firstly, certain ingredients like fragrances, dyes, preservatives and parabens can irritate the skin and cause flare-ups of eczema. Secondly, if a skincare product is not labelled for sensitive skin, it could contain known or unknown triggers that disrupt the skin’s natural ability to protect itself from environmental factors. Lastly, heavy creams used on facial skin may result in clogged pores where bacteria builds up and triggers flares of eczema.

If you have sensitive skin or a history of eczema, it is important to read the labels of all skincare products before use and avoid any ingredients that could potentially aggravate your symptoms. Adhering to a gentle skincare routine plus avoiding harsh agents may reduce your risk of experiencing an eczema flare-up due to skincare product usage.

House dust mites

House dust mites are microscopic organisms found in warm and humid places like beds, carpets, and upholstered furniture. These common pests feed on the skin cells that we forever shed and their excrements are the main cause of allergies such as asthma, hayfever and eczema. In some cases, the dust mite itself can be a trigger for those with sensitivities. When someone with eczema breathes or touches dust mite particles, it can cause irritation to flare up.

The best way to reduce symptoms is to eliminate contact with dust mites by regularly washing sheets, curtains, and upholstery in hot water, using special covers for mattresses, cushions and pillows as well as vacuuming floors often. Doing all this helps keep them away from your home and minimise one’s exposure to these triggers.

Food allergies

Food allergies can oftentimes be the root cause of eczema. Allergens like cow’s milk, eggs, nuts, soy and wheat are common triggers of eczema flare-ups. While sometimes hidden, food sensitivities can be difficult to identify as the source of an eczema breakout. It is essential for proper treatment. Eliminating suspected allergens from your diet is typically the first step in managing food allergy-related eczema symptoms.

In more severe cases of food-triggered eczema, further testing may be recommended to pinpoint and eliminate certain allergens from your daily consumption. With proper guidance and oversight from a dermatologist, you can prevent future flare-ups while still maintaining a balanced diet full of healthy and nutritious foods.

Weather

Eczema is an uncomfortable, often persistent, skin condition that can be triggered by different environmental conditions. Weather is one of the most common triggers of eczema flare-ups; hot and cold temperatures can worsen the symptoms. Humidity swings, strong wind and dry air can also exacerbate eczema as they draw moisture out of the skin and affect its natural barrier functions.

To avoid weather-related eczema flares, those with the condition are often recommended to dress in multiple layers when heading outdoors in colder climates, keep the rooms they live in hydrated by using a humidifier if necessary and choose fabrics that breathe easily like cotton or linen. Additionally, sun exposure can help reduce inflammation which occurs with eczema however people with this condition should protect their skin from prolonged unprotected exposure as it may cause further irritation.

Exercise

Exercise can improve physical, mental and emotional health, but those with eczema might hesitate to get active. As the body works hard during exercise, sweat can increase the risk of triggering a flare-up. The friction of tight-fitting clothes or rough surfaces such as gym mats can also lead to irritation and itchiness in people with preexisting eczema.

However, if someone is properly prepared ahead of time, exercise doesn’t have to be off-limits or a major source of stress. Taking steps such as wearing breathable clothing, moisturising afterwards and cleaning the skin regularly can help minimise triggers. Additionally, those with sensitive skin should use light fabrics for clothing during exercise, like cotton and silk rather than harsher synthetic materials. If you are noticing certain workouts increasing inflammation, keep a record of them so that you can adjust what kind of exercise you do in the future to improve your eczema symptoms.

Mental health conditions

Mental health conditions can contribute to creating or worsening certain skin conditions, such as eczema. While this association is not well understood, research suggests that stress, loneliness and anxiousness can cause excess production of cortisol, a hormone which promotes inflammation in the body. As eczema is an inflammatory disorder of the skin, scientists believe these elevated levels of cortisol may increase flare-ups and discomfort.

Mental health conditions may also lead to a weakened immune system which can have after-effects on the skin’s ability to fight off infections, worsening eczema symptoms. Practising stress-management techniques such as yoga and mindfulness are known to reduce levels of cortisol in the body and help to keep eczema under control. Seeking support from mental health professionals and dermatologists is key to successful treatment if you think your mental health might be influencing the severity of your eczema symptoms.

Eczema treatment

Treating eczema can be a challenging process, as it is often difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of flare-ups. Treatment options vary depending on the severity of your condition but typically include over-the-counter products such as topical corticosteroid creams and ointments, antihistamines, moisturisers, emollients and soap substitutes.

With severe eczema cases, your healthcare provider will probably also consider phototherapy or systemic therapies (i.e. tablets or injections) to ensure that the symptoms stay under control. It is important to keep skin well moisturised and irritation-free by using the prescribed treatments regularly and avoiding potential irritants such as harsh soaps and excessive heat and cold.

Eczema is a chronic skin condition that presents differently from one person to another; however, there are certain common triggers and irritants associated with this condition that should be avoided if possible in order to manage flare-ups. Knowing what your personal triggers and irritants are will help you develop a plan specifically tailored to your needs in order to manage your eczema most effectively. If you have questions about managing eczema flare-ups please reach out to your healthcare provider for more information.

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