This is a very common skin condition in which the sufferer develops dry, red, flaky skin which is also itchy and prone to blisters. These blisters contain fluid which weep and then form crusty deposits which is a sign of infection.

There is more than one type of eczema – similar to dermatitis – which is why these two conditions are often assumed to be one and the same. The symptoms vary between individuals but there are others which are common to all subgroups of this condition.

How many people are affected with eczema?

It affects around 5 per cent of adults and 15 to 20 per cent of children in the UK. And, it appears to be on the increase.

Why is that? One reason is that we are exposed to an increasing range of household products including detergents, solvents and cleaning materials which are known triggers for this condition.

This also applies to allergens (substances which cause an allergic reaction) which have also seen an increase in cases. These include exposure to dust and house mites.

A mild case of eczema is easy to treat and manage but severe cases are much harder to deal with. The problem is that there is usually more than one factor involved which makes it more difficult to diagnose and treat. So in many case it is a case of managing the condition and basically, learning to live with it.

Eczema severity rating

Eczema is classed as one of the following:

  • Acute
  • Chronic
  • Infected

The type you have is determined by the extent of the rash and any other symptoms and the activity. How often do you have flare ups and how severe or not are they?

Causes of eczema

There is more than one cause of eczema which includes:

  • Touching or handling a substance which irritates the skin. This is known as irritant eczema.
  • An allergic reaction to a substance
  • Genetics
  • Medical conditions such as celiac disease and fungal infections

It is often the case that someone with asthma or another allergic condition is at greater risk of developing eczema.

Symptoms of eczema

The one thing all types of eczema have in common is the skin rash. These skin rashes differ according to the type of eczema but they all include some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Inflamed skin
  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Scaly skin
  • Flaky skin
  • Skin which cracks
  • Blisters

These blisters contain tissue fluids which leak, leaving an empty lesion which dries out and forms a crust. If the crust has a deep yellow colour then it is a sign of an infection.

Diagnosing eczema

Your GP will diagnose this via a physical examination of your skin and a discussion about your medical history. If you have developed eczema as a result of your work environment then mention this as it will aid with diagnosis.

A skin biopsy will be taken in some cases.

Treatment for eczema

Eczema cannot be cured but it can be managed. The aim is to alleviate the symptoms and prevent further flare ups.

Your treatment is a combination of lifestyle changes and prescribed remedies. These include topical steroids, immunosuppressant drugs, antihistamines and moisturising creams or emollients.

Light therapy such as intense pulsed light (IPL) or photodynamic therapy is another option. These use ultraviolet (UV) light in the form of lasers to direct specific wavelengths at affected areas of the skin.

Find out more about photodynamic therapy in our dermatology treatments section.

In regard to lifestyle changes: your diet will be looked at to see if there are any foods which are causing an allergic reaction. Plus there are certain foods which may ease the symptoms.

Avoid scratching or picking at your eczema and wear loose cotton clothing. Use special creams and lotions and ensure that your skin is kept moisturised as often as possible. Try to avoid dry skin as this will trigger a flare up of the symptoms.