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Eczema: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read

What is eczema?

Eczema is a well known dry, inflammatory skin condition. Although seen as a problem in children it can affect people of all ages. For some with childhood eczema it can clear up as you get older or it may appear for the first time in adulthood. It is a condition with symptoms that can vary from person to person, however it is not contagious. Eczema is known to affect 1 in 5 children and 1 in 12 adults in the UK.

What causes eczema & how long does it last?

The exact cause of eczema is unknown. Your genes can play a role, so you may find it runs in your family.  If you have eczema your skin doesn’t produce as many fats and oils as it should, which makes it less able to hold moisture. This weakens your skin barrier leading to dry, irritated and cracked skin.

Skin with eczema is often much more sensitive to soap, bubble bath and washing up liquid as these remove oil from the skin. For someone with eczema these will often cause irritated, cracked or inflamed skin.

If you’re living with eczema, we can help. Complete our online doctor consultation with our UK-registered GPs who can prescribe treatment to relieve your symptoms and help you to manage your eczema. We’ll deliver your treatment in discreet packaging directly to your door.

Depending on the type of eczema you have, it could last for a few weeks and resolve itself without treatment or it may become a long-term condition that you need to manage. For those who live with eczema long-term, emollient creams and ointments can keep it under control.

Types of eczema

There are a number of types of eczema. 

  • Atopic eczema (atopic dermatitis) is the most common form, causing itchy, dry and cracked skin. This is a genetic condition, so a family member may also have eczema, or another ‘atopic’ condition (such as asthma or hay fever).

Symptoms: The skin becomes dry, cracked, itchy and sore. This can appear in small patches of dry skin or it can be more widespread. Atopic eczema can occur all over the body but most commonly occurs around hands, inside of the elbows, backs of the knees and the face and scalp in children.

Treatment: moisturisers, creams and ointments are commonly prescribed for this condition which help to prevent and treat eczema. Depending on your symptoms, antihistamines may also help for severe itching. 

  • Discoid eczema is also known as nummular or discoid dermatitis. It is a type of eczema that causes the skin to become itchy, cracked or swollen and occurs in circular or oval patches.

Symptoms: The key identifier for this type of eczema is the circular or oval patches it will appear in. It can affect any part of the body and usually begins in a group of small spots or bumps on the skin which then form into larger patches.

Treatment: Discoid eczema is usually a long term problem but treatment with medications can help to ease the symptoms and keep it under control. Treatments include, moisturising creams and ointments, topical corticosteroids to relieve severe symptoms, antibiotics for infected eczema, and antihistamines for severe itching.

  • Varicose eczema, also known as venous, gravitational or stasis eczema, is a type of eczema that affects the lower legs It’s common in people with varicose veins.

Symptoms: Like all types of eczema, the skin becomes itchy, swollen, dry, scaly or crusty. Your legs may also become swollen after long periods of standing or at the end of the day. Pain may occur and the skin may be tender and tight and can become hardened (lipodermatosclerosis). Varicose veins are often also visible.

Treatment: Improving circulation to the legs is important to control this condition. Moisturising ointments and creams can help to keep the skin from becoming dry and topical corticosteroids can help to treat the eczema and relieve symptoms. If varicose eczema is left untreated, leg ulcers can develop. These are long lasting wounds where the skin has become damaged.

  • Seborrhoeic eczema is also known as seborrhoeic dermatitis, a type of eczema that mainly affects the sides of the nose, eyebrows, ears and scalp. Dandruff is a mild form of seborrhoeic dermatitis. It most commonly occurs in men but can affect anyone, at any age.

Symptoms: The cause of seborrhoeic eczema is not fully understood. It is associated with the proliferation of a skin yeast called Malassezia which may cause an inflammatory reaction. It is harmless to your overall health, but can be stubborn to shift and is usually more common in warmer weather.

Treatment: Medicated shampoos can be used to remove the scales when necessary. Topical antifungals that reduce the level of skin yeast can help to control the condition. Mild topical steroid creams can be used in the short term to relieve any irritation.

  • Dyshidrotic eczema (pompholyx) is a type of eczema that causes tiny blisters to develop across the palms of the hands, fingers and sometimes the soles of the feet. It’s most common in adults under 40 years old, but can affect anyone at any age

Symptoms: It often begins with severe itching and burning of the skin around the hands and fingers, which then begin to blister and may weep fluid. It can be caused by a fungal infection, a reaction to something, stress, or excessive sweating. 

Treatment: Generally, dyshidrotic eczema will clear up on it’s own within a few weeks. Emollient creams and ointments can be used to prevent the skin becoming dry.  Topical steroid creams may be prescribed to reduce the irritation and  inflammations. 

How to cure & treat eczema?

Currently there is no known cure for eczema, but ongoing management through emollient creams, ointments and topical steroids when required can help to minimise the discomfort and the impact on your life. 

If you’re experiencing an eczema flare up, our UK-registered GPs can help prescribe treatment to relieve your symptoms and help you to manage your eczema. We’ll be able to determine the correct treatment for the type of eczema you’re dealing with if you aren’t already aware of which type of eczema you have. 

How to prevent eczema?

Understanding what triggers your eczema and using emollient creams or ointments to prevent the skin from becoming dry can help to prevent flare ups. Some forms of eczema can be triggered by other medication you’re on or conditions you’re managing. You can speak to your GP for further guidance if you suffer with chronic eczema.

For more information on eczema take a look at the website of the National Eczema Society.