The word 'eczema' comes from the ancient Greek word 'ekzema', meaning to ‘boil over' or break out’ and there are estimated to be 230 million sufferers around the world. Also referred to by the terms 'atopic dermatitis', 'allergic eczema' and 'atopic eczema', it is where the skin becomes inflamed and is often dry, itchy, red and sometimes scaly. In cases of severe eczema, the skin may form tiny liquid filled blisters, or weep or bleed and become hard and crusted.

Although a third of Australians suffer eczema at some point in their lives, the condition is especially common in children, with 20% of children under two affected. At this age skin all over the body may be affected, but as they get older specific parts of the body are more likely to develop eczema, for example the knees and elbows. Adult sufferers tend to be most affected on the hands and feet, although eczema does tend to lessen with age.

The causes of eczema are not fully understood - a family history of the condition does influence whether or not their child will suffer eczema and where both parents have had the condition a child stands an 80% chance of developing it. Twins also have an 85% chance of suffering eczema if their twin has it. Eczema is generally connected to allergies and allergic reactions with a strong likelihood that someone that has allergies will develop eczema and the other way around and so it is likely that the condition is in some way connected to the way in which the immune system functions with the skin.

Certain environments and conditions can act as triggers for eczema, for example urban living and dry climates seem to make sufferers prone to eczema flare ups, although conversely hot and humid climates have the same effect.

Treatment options for eczema

Firstly certain things can be done to minimise eczema on a day-to-day basis, for example...

  • Use skincare and washing powder and detergent products containing natural ingredients and/or hypoallergenic products - this will eliminate possible irritant ingredients
  • Cut the fingernails reguarly to minimise accidently scratching or breaking the skin
  • Avoid hot showers or baths - warm is better
  • Pat your skin dry using a soft towel
  • Use moisturiser immediately after having a bath or shower to retain moisture in the skin
  • Wear clothing that is natural fibre and not tight fitting to avoid scratches
  • Avoid chlorinated pools, sand and sandpits and sitting on carpets or grass
  • Food - artifical colour and preservative may make eczema worse for some people
  • Treat your rooms to minimise dust mites
  • Wear cotton gloves at night to avoid scratching
  • Avoid stress

Medical options

  • Anti-inflammatory creams and topical steroids (corticosteroids)
  • Oral corticosteroids - for severe cases of eczema and under medical supervision
  • Pimecrolimus cream - a non-steroid anti-inflammatory cream that can be helpful at the onset of eczema
  • Coal tar is another treatment that can be effective
  • Phototherapy (UV therapy) - can be effective for chronic eczema

Eczema is not contagious and, although it can be treated and managed, there is no cure as such for the condition.