What is eczema?

Eczema is a form of dermatitis, or inflammation of the upper layers of the skin. It is broadly applied to a range of persistent or recurring skin rashes characterized by redness, skin edema, itching and dryness, with possible crusting, flaking, blistering, cracking, oozing or bleeding. Areas of temporary skin discoloration sometimes characterize healed lesions, though scarring is rare. Some of the common symptoms are:

  • Moderate-to-severely itching skin (this symptom separates eczema from other skin rashes)
  • Recurring rash - dry, red, patchy or cracked skin (in infants and toddlers, the rash usually appears on the face, elbows or knees. In older children and adults, the rash appears less often on the face, and more commonly on the hands, neck, inner elbows, backs of the knees and ankles) 
  • Skin weeping watery fluid
  • Rough, "leathery," thick skin
  • Lesions which may be infected by bacteria or viruses

What causes eczema?

Although the exact cause of eczema is unknown, it appears to be linked to the following internal and external factors:

Internal factors 

  • A family history of eczema, asthma or hay fever (the strongest predictor) - if both parents have eczema, there is an 80 per cent chance that their children will too
  • Particular food and alcohol (dairy and wheat products, citrus fruits, eggs, nuts, seafood, chemical food additives, preservatives and colorings)
  • Stress

External factors 

  • Irritants - tobacco smoke, chemicals, weather (hot and humid or cold and dry conditions) and air conditioning or overheating
  • Allergens - house dust mites, moulds, grasses, plant pollens, foods, pets  and clothing, soaps, shampoos and washing powders, cosmetics and toiletries.

What are the treatment options for Eczema?

  • Topical corticosteroids that help reduce inflammation and itchiness. This is the most common form of eczema treatment. Most topical corticosteroids are available by prescription. However some milder strengths and non-steroidal options are available in the pharmacy.
  • Using intense moisturizers in-between the steroid treatments
  • Antihistamines that may induce sleep and reduce itchiness
  • Wet bandaging that soothes the skin, reduces itchiness and helps heal lesions
  • Antibiotics that treat secondary infections
  • Allergy testing (prick or blood tests) that may help establish trigger factors 
  • Diet modification, including seeking the advice of a dietician