Also called dermatitis, eczema is a noncontagious skin inflammation that produces itchy skin, red, rashlike areas. These occur on the face, scalp, wrists, and hands, as well as at the crease of the elbows, in back of the knees and sometimes elsewhere on the body.
Eczema can spread or worsen if you scratch the affected areas. And persistent scratching or rubbing can bring on chronic eczema, chronic itchy skin, with its distinctive dark, thickened, scaly red patches.
There are different types of eczema, some classified by causes, others by specific symptoms. Atopic dermatitis is marked by a hypersensitivity, or allergy, to a food, inhalant, or other common substance that doesn’t bother most people. It tends to be genetically linked, affecting individuals with a family history of hay fever, asthma, or eczema.
Flaking and scaling on the face and scalp are typical of seborrheic dermatitis, while contact dermatitis produces an acute local rash after someone sensitive to it comes in contact with an irritant (say, the nickel in jewelry or the oil on a poison ivy leaf).
A separate type of itchy skin, stasis dermatitis, affects the lower legs and ankles and is associated with insufficient circulation of blood in those areas.
Itchy, red rashlike patches of skin that are dry, rough, scaly or cracked
Small red pimplelike blisters
Leaking (“weeping”) of fluid, crusting and flaking in affected areas
Chafing and peeling
Thickened, dry patches of skin in persistent cases
Itching, swelling and inflammation in lower legs and around ankles (stasis dermatitis)
What Causes Eczema?
Allergies are a common cause of eczema. People who are susceptible tend to have a personal or family history of allergic reactions to foods, pollen, animal fur or other substances. Many people with eczema also have (or eventually develop) hay fever or asthma, and their bodies often contain above-normal amounts of histamine, a chemical that triggers an allergic defense reaction in the skin when it’s released.
Eczema symptoms can be triggered by such foods as milk, eggs, shellfish, nuts, wheat, strawberries, and chocolate.
They can also be aggravated by contact with various substances, including animal fur, plant allergens, such as poison ivy and poison sumac, jewelry containing chrome and especially nickel (watchbands, rings, earrings), cosmetics (including nail polish), fragrances, deodorants and antiperspirants, shaving lotions and skin creams, different types of fabrics (particularly wool and silk), dyes, latex and rubber, leathers, and household cleaning agents (including dishwashing and laundry detergents
Other factors associated with outbreaks of eczema are dry air; too much sun; stress; topical medications and certain drugs, such as penicillin; hot baths; and exposure to dust, pollen, and animal dander.
Treatment and Prevention
Soothing creams and ointments can help to lessen the excruciating itchy skin of eczema–and it’s important not to scratch, as this can worsen the condition.
A variety of nutritional supplements can also provide relief.
How Supplements Can Help
Because people respond differently to supplements, many eczema sufferers have to try several before they find one (or a good combination) that works well for them.
Evening primrose oil (in capsules, soft gels, or liquid) contains essential fatty acids that can help revitalize the skin and relieve itching and inflammation. Studies have shown that recommended daily doses of evening primrose oil can reduce the need for creams. Alternatives to evening primrose oil are the less expensive black currant and borage seed oils.
Flaxseed oil contains equal amounts of both omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, which can be helpful in the treatment of any chronic allergic condition, including eczema.
Fish oils were found to relieve chronic eczema in a double-blind study. They appear to work by reducing levels of leukotriene B-4, a substance in the body involved with the inflammation of eczema. Eating cold-water fish regularly is the best source for fish oils, but if you’re not a fish fan, you can always take fish oil capsules.
Grape seed extract is rich in flavonoids (antioxidant substances that inhibit the body’s allergic responses). Grape seed extract can help relieve and prevent the itchy skin flare-ups of eczema.