Aloe Benifits
What is eczema?

T his short book is intended for those who want to know more about eczema, either because they have it themselves or because it affects a relative or friend for whom they are caring.

There are several different types of eczema. The most common of these is atopic eczema – the kind suffered mainly by babies and children. This book therefore covers atopic eczema in childhood in greater detail than other forms of eczema.

Other types of eczema trouble us at different times of life for a number of reasons. For some, it is work related, whereas others develop a specific allergy to something to which they are exposed at home or work. And, as we get older, our skin becomes drier and thinner, which contributes to certain forms of eczema in old age.

This book should help you understand some of the basic rules in eczema, how it arises, the principles of treatment and what kind of professional help is available.

What is eczema?

The term ‘eczema’ covers a wide range of skin problems, which trouble people at different stages in their lives. It crops up in many different ways, such as in an elderly person with dry red skin around the ankles, a child with weeping red areas on the wrists, or someone whose eyelids have become itchy, red, dry and puffy in reaction to make-up. Common features of eczema include the following.

Eczema is usually dry, making your skin feel rough, scaly and sometimes thickened. In severe eczema or after a prolonged bout of scratching, the skin becomes wet with colourless fluid, sometimes mixed with blood.

Itch

Itch occurs with nearly all forms of eczema, varying from mild irritation to a hopelessly distracting and distressing symptom that makes life miserable for the sufferer and others involved.

Redness

Redness is usually present in ecze-ma and this redness can fluctuate, appearing bright red at some times of the day while at others it is barely noticeable. The redness is usually most obvious when you are hot or have exercised, or after a hot bath.

Dryness

Eczema is usually dry, making your skin feel rough, scaly and some-times thickened. Dryness reduces the protective quality of the skin, making it less effective at protecting against heat, cold, fluid loss and bacterial infection.

Wetness

In severe eczema, or after a prolonged period of scratching, the skin’s protective character can be reduced further and the skin becomes wet with colourless fluid that has oozed from the tissues, sometimes mixed with blood leaking from damaged capillaries (small blood vessels). Wetness usually occurs when eczema is at its most itchy and is very likely to become infected. Some wetness may come from small vesicles (pin-head blisters), which burst when scratched. These are most commonly found on the hands and feet, along the edges of the digits or on the palms or soles.

Structure of the skin

The skin is your largest organ, weighing about four kilograms and covering about two square metres. It is your interface with the environment, protecting you against chemicals, bacteria and radiation, helping you to maintain a stable body temperature, and stopping you from losing fluid and vital body chemicals. Your skin contains nerve endings that allow you to feel touch, temperature and pain. Nails, which are also part of your skin layer, are useful for prising things open, among other things. Skin is strong and resilient, yet also flexible.

Your skin protects you against chemicals, bacteria and radiation, helps you maintain a stable body temperature, and stops you from losing fluid and vital body chemicals.

Epidermis

The outer layer is the epidermis, which contains sheets of epithelial cells called keratinocytes. These keratinocytes are produced at the junction between the epidermis and the second layer of skin, the dermis. The epidermis is supported from below by the dermis.

The epidermis contains many layers of closely packed cells. The cells nearest the skin’s surface are flat and filled with a tough substance called keratin. The epidermis contains no blood vessels – these are all in the dermis and deeper layers.

The epidermis is thick in some parts (one millimetre on the palms and soles) and thin in others (just 0.1 millimetre over the eyelids). Dead cells are shed from the surface of the epidermis as very fine scale, and are replaced by other cells which pass from the deepest (basal) layers to the surface layers over a period of about four weeks.

The dead cells on the surface take the form of flattened, overlapping plates, closely packed together. This layer is known as the stratum corneum and is remarkably flexible, more or less waterproof and has a dry surface so that it is inhospitable to micro-organisms.

Dermis

The dermis is made up of connective tissue, which contains a mixture of cells that give strength and elasticity to the skin. This layer also contains blood vessels, hair follicles and roots, nerve endings, and sweat and lymph vessels and glands. The elements of the dermis all carry messages or fluids to and from the epidermis so it can grow, respond to the outside world and react to what goes on inside the body.

Fat

Underneath the dermis is a layer of fat which acts as an important source of energy and water for the dermis. It also provides protection against physical injury and the cold.

What happens in eczema?

In eczema, the main problems occur in the epidermis where the keratinocytes become less tightly held together. As a result, they become vulnerable to external factors such as soap, water and more aggressive solvents such as washing up liquid, or solvents used as part of work or hobbies. These solvents dissolve some of the grease and protein that contribute to the natural barrier of the skin. Once this process has begun, the skin may become inflamed as a reaction to minor irritation such as rubbing or scratching. This, in turn, makes the eczema worse and a cycle of irritation, inflammation and deterioration of eczema becomes established.

In eczema the keratinocytes become less tightly held together, so becoming more vulnerable to external factors such as chemical solvents and water, which dissolve the natural protective barrier of the skin.

As part of this cycle, the skin becomes less effective as a barrier. It is less effective at preventing damage from solvents and abrasive materials acting from the outside, and it is also more likely to lose body moisture from within. In a small patch of eczema, this can mean just a few vesicles (very small bubbles in the skin) bursting and leaking water. As the eczema gets worse, the fluid may come from the dermis and include blood from broken capillaries. When severe eczema covers a large percentage of the body surface, it is possible to lose substantial amounts of body fluid, blood and protein through the skin. In addition to these materials, the body can lose heat from the skin, which can become important in people who are physically infirm. The barrier function of the skin is reduced further when scratching occurs and breaks are gouged in the skin by fingernails. As with solvents, this fuels the eczema and is termed the ‘itch–scratch cycle’.

The skin affected by eczema may become inflamed and sore as a reaction to minor irritation. This causes the sufferer to rub and scratch the affected area, making the eczema worse, and a cycle of irritation (scratching), inflammation and deterioration of eczema sets in.

When skin becomes broken and there is a mix of blood, fluid and protein on the surface, there is a high chance of infection. This infection is usually bacterial and will add to the symptoms and severity of the eczema.

Eczema and the immune

system

The epidermis is the place where the outside world meets the body’s immune system. Usually the im-mune system reacts only to parts of the outside world that present a danger, such as insect bites. In many people with eczema, however, the immune system reacts more vigorously than usual to a wider range of normally harmless influences such as animal dander (small particles of hair or feathers), pollen and house-dust mite. As these trigger allergic reactions, these substances are known as allergens.

The immune system tries to destroy allergens by releasing a mixture of its own irritant substances, such as histamine, into the skin. The result is that the allergen may be altered or removed, but at the expense of causing soreness and making the skin fragile so other problems can develop, such as bacterial infection or damage from scratching.

How common is eczema?

Eczema is one of the most common skin disorders. Studies by general practitioners suggest that around 30 per cent of all people with skin problems have eczema. Of those referred to hospital with skin problems, about 20 per cent have eczema in some form. Atopic eczema is the most common form, particularly in children, affecting 10–20 per cent to some extent.

What kind of eczema is it?

The table on pages 8–9 outlines the main types of eczema and should help you identify which type you are dealing with. Eczema can also be categorised according to the main sites or the age groups typically affected. Each category is described in greater depth later in the book.

Is it definitely eczema?

Several skin conditions are red and itchy like eczema and may look the same initially; some are described here. It is, however, important to seek medical advice about any persistent or worrying rash.

Urticaria

Also known as hives, this is a distressing itchy rash of red bumps with a surrounding pale ring. Urticaria can crop up all over the body. It tends to move around, settling in one area then appearing elsewhere, usually over a period of about 24 hours. The rash can disappear completely for short periods; it may go away during the night and gradually reappear during the day. Unlike eczema, the skin does not become particularly dry and will not ooze unless scratching is so severe that it breaks the surface. Urticaria usually settles within a few days – although sometimes it can go on for months.

Urticaria, also known as hives, is an intensely itchy rash that may affect the whole body or just an area of skin. It is usually caused by an allergic reaction.

cPsoriasis can look like eczema at several sites on the body, but is far less common in childhood. The rash appears more silvery and is less itchy. Unlike eczema, it can have a very clear edge, which is some-times slightly raised. Psoriasis is more likely to affect the front of the knees and back of the elbows. It is more common in the scalp and around the ears, and there may be changes in the nails with small dents (pits) and lifting up of the nails. Psoriasis may be confused with seborrhoeic eczema or gravitational eczema.

The epidermis in psoriatic skin turns over much more rapidly than that in normal skin. Immature skin cells reach the surface, forming plaques of loose visible skin.

Rashes with fever

Blotchy red rashes are common during childhood. Some are connected with specific illnesses, such as German measles (rubella), or just with having a high fever. Sometimes, the rash has no obvious cause, and will pass within a day or two and cause no concern.

The important rash not to miss is the rash of meningococcal meningitis. All the other rashes mentioned so far are red, but look paler if examined through the bottom of a glass, pressed against the skin. In meningococcal meningitis, bleeding into the skin produces patches of purple discoloration which do not become pale when the glass is pressed against the skin. There is no blood on the surface, however, and no blood will come off on the glass. Also, the rash is not itchy. If you are worried that a rash may be the result of meningitis, seek urgent medical help.

If you are worried that a rash may be the result of meningitis, seek urgent medical help. In meningococcal meningitis bleeding into the skin produces patches of purple discoloration which do not become pale when the bottom of a glass is pressed against the skin.

Reactions to sunlight

  • Sunburn:
  • The most obvious reaction to sunlight is sunburn, which appears within a few hours of exposure to intense sunshine. In babies and small children, quite mild sunshine can produce sunburn. The connection with bright sunshine means that it is usually easy to distinguish sunburn from eczema. The speed of the reaction and the typical unpleasant tingling are also slightly different.

  • Polymorphic light reaction:
  • This is usually seen in adolescents and young adults. It affects the backs of hands, forearms, top of the feet and the exposed part of the legs. The V of the neck is typically affected and, although the face is very exposed to sun, it may be only the nose, chin and top of cheeks that develop the rash. It comes on quite quickly after sun exposure, usually quicker than sunburn, and is bumpy and red. There is a clear cut-off at the edge of clothing and straps, showing that sun is the cause. The condition is worst in the first month or two of summer but the skin gets used to sunshine and the reaction usually disappears by mid-summer or autumn. Unlike sunburn, there is no blistering, scaling, soreness or tightness. The redness may last for several days or longer. People who tan quite easily, even those with dark skin, may still get polymorphic light reaction.

    Polymorphic light eruption is probably caused by a genetic predisposition to develop an allergic reaction to a substance in the skin that is chemically altered by UV radiation, and therefore appears foreign to the body.

  • Lupus erythematosus:
  • This is a rare condition, in which there is a marked reaction to sunlight that can produce scaling, redness and sometimes itch. These three features mean that it could quite easily be confused with eczema. However, lupus gets worse in sunshine and, although there is some itch, it is seldom intense.

    Lupus erythematosus is a rare autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks its own tissues on parts of the body exposed to sunlight.

    REDUCING YOUR RISK OF SUNBURN AND SUN-INDUCED SKIN DAMAGE

    • Avoid excessive exposure outdoors around midday in summer in sunny climates
    • Cover as much of your skin as convenient with suitable clothing when so exposed .
    • Wear a cosmetically suitable, combined UVB and UVA sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF15–25) and a high UVA protection (often designated as a star rating – * to ****)
    • Re-apply the sunscreen every hour or so if you are outdoors for prolonged periods and after swimming, perspiration or exercise
    • Consider also using a sunscreen incorporated into a moisturiser throughout the summer on the face and hands
    • Don’t pick intensely sunny venues as your holiday destinations