More than a million Aussies have eczema. Here’s how to treat it

Eczema, characterised by red, itchy skin, can make life pretty uncomfortable. Here’s how to avoid triggers and keep it under control.

Australia has one of the highest incidences of eczema worldwide – more than a million of us have it.

The extremely common skin condition can cause redness, dryness and itching and affects both children and adults.

In severe cases, it may weep, bleed and crust over.

Eczema, a term originating from ancient Greek meaning to “boil over, erupt”, is also known as atopic eczema, atopic dermatitis and allergic eczema.

What causes eczema?

Genes and the environment can both play a role in the development of eczema, says Eczema Association of Australasia president Cheryl Talent.

“While anyone can develop eczema, research shows people with allergies, asthma and eczema themselves are more likely to have children that develop eczema,” Cheryl says.

Dermatologist Dr Deshan Sebaratnam says eczema refers to inflammation in the epidermis (the top layer of the skin).

“Most of the time this is caused by atopic dermatitis where the body’s own immune system causes inflammation in the skin,” Dr Sebaratnam, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales, says.

How do you know if you have it?

Common symptoms of eczema include:

  • Dry scales on the skin.
  • Inflammation – redness and swelling of the skin.
  • Intense itching.
  • Scratch marks.
  • Thick, dry, leathery skin.
  • Small, raised, blister-like bumps that may open when scratched, can become infected, then weep and crust.

Dr Sebaratnam says the itchy, flaky, red skin that often arises due to eczema can occur anywhere but “tends to be in the areas of thin skin on the body: the eyelids, face, neck, elbows and behind the knees”.

What are the triggers of eczema?

Some people may find their eczema gets worse with certain daily activities or coming into contact with something in the environment, dermatologist Dr Elizabeth Dawes-Higgs says.

Dry, windy environments are one example.

“Other triggers include chlorine, sand, fragrances, grass and house dust mites,” Dr Dawes-Higgs, of Northern Sydney Dermatology and Laser, says.

Dr Sebaratnam says triggers can include changes in temperature, humidity, sunlight and “things the skin may come into contact with”.

“Anything that stirs up the immune system (an infection, for example) can also trigger eczema,” he says.

How you can manage your eczema

One of the most important ways to manage the condition is by keeping the skin moisturised.

Look for a moisturiser that is free from fragrances, perfumes and food products.

It may also require the use of anti-inflammatory medication.

“These include topical steroids, which are perfectly safe to use long term under medical supervision, or non-steroidal agents,” Dr Sebaratnam says.

“When these are insufficient to control disease, options include phototherapy or systemic treatments (tablets or injections).”

Can you outgrow it?

Although eczema can affect people of any age, it is most common in infants and children.

According to the Eczema Association of Australia, it usually appears in early childhood (in babies aged between two and six months) and disappears around six years of age.

Twenty per cent of people develop the condition before the age of five.

Dr Dawes-Higgs says while for some people it will get better with age, others will require treatment their whole life.

Written by Tania Gomez.