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Eczema is a general term used to describe a number of inflamed skin conditions. The most common form of eczema is more specifically called atopic dermatitis - "atopic eczema". Up to 20% of the world's population is afflicted with atopic dermatitis during childhood. Eczema skin symptoms are manifested in an itchy rash. Although atopic eczema is a chronic and often relapsing skin condition, many people outgrow the condition as they mature into adulthood. Eczema is not contagious. Although it is not curable, it can be very effectively managed with appropriate treatment.
The causes of atopic eczema are not known; however, experts generally agree that it is the result of an abnormal immune system response to any number of external factors. Irritating external substances cause an overactive inflammatory response, causing the skin to become itchy and present redness or a rash. These factors can include:
- rough materials in contact with skin
- soaps, detergents and disinfectants
- dust mites
- certain foods
- psychological factors, such as stress
Eczema usually manifests itself in red, dry, itchy patches on the skin. It can occur on any area of the body; however, the face, hands, elbows and knees are the most common. Because eczema is itchy, many people, particularly children, tend to scratch the problem area, leading to rashes and thickening of the skin. Eczema can also cause areas of the skin to bubble and ooze.
Eczema usually appears in childhood. Although the cause of eczema is unknown, it tends to strike more often in those who have a family history of allergies. As well, a family history of asthma may increase the odds of developing eczema.
Treating eczema involves taking precautions to limit the frequency and severity of skin flare ups. Some simple guidelines can help prevent outbreaks, including:
- moisturize the skin often
- maintain constant, comfortable body temperature
- stress management
- wear loose, comfortable clothing
- identify and avoid soaps and chemicals that contribute to flare ups
- identify and avoid foods that cause flare ups
- avoid environments where molds, dust mites or dander are present
The most important aspect in treating eczema is to avoid scratching the itchy skin. Skin lotions and creams, applied immediately after bathing, help to reduce the itchiness and cut down on scratching. Non prescription corticosteroid ointments can reduce the inflammation of areas affected and unresponsive to regular creams or lotions.
Prescription corticosteroid ointments are also available, as are oral corticosteroids. These are usually only used in the most severe cases of eczema, as side effects are common.
A dermatologist can help to diagnose the severity of eczema and suggest appropriate treatments. It is vital to seek this medical advice early, so as to avoid skin thickening or infections that can result from too much skin scratching.
The American Academy of Dermatology has developed an excellent resource for information about acne and skin diseases. Excellent resources and research articles on skin conditions can be found online at the Archives of Dermatology.
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