According to the NHS, the number of eczema cases being reported has risen 40 per cent in the past four years.
Whether you are unfortunate enough to be born with the skin condition or you develop it in later life, eczema can be painful, embarrassing and debilitating.
There are more than six million sufferers in the UK and, according to a survey by Lloyds Pharmacy, it can cause people to avoid intimacy, take time off work and cancel social events.
What can be done to get your skin back on track? Here are our tips from the health experts
What is eczema?
Eczema is red, flaky and itchy skin, which will often crack and weep. The most common type of eczema is atopic (caused by allergies), but people may suffer from contact eczema (flare-ups after touching allergens such as nickel or rubber), discoid (which occurs in coin-shaped patches), or seborrheic (eczema of the scalp).
Atopic eczema is in your genes, and often goes hand-in-hand with hay fever and asthma.
"You can send eczema into remission, but you’ll always have it – it’s a case of whether you have symptoms or not," says GP Dr Rob Hicks. "The aim of the treatment is to keep people free from flare-ups."
Although you may be genetically predisposed to eczema, it can only be set off by a trigger, which could be anything from nuts to dog hair, wool to cigarette smoke, and establishing what it is, is key to treatment.
1. Don't scratch
Breaking the itch-scratch cycle is vital for recovery. "Scratching may bring temporary relief to the itch, but it actually triggers the release of a chemical called histamine which just causes more itching," says Dr Rob.
Scratching damages the skin and may allow bacteria that normally lives on the surface to get in and cause infection. Keep nails short, and whenever you get the urge to have a scratch, massage the itchy area with moisturiser using the pads of your fingertips.
2. Slather on the cream
Most people will need to try a few treatments before they find one that works for them. The best way to treat eczema is moisturising. "You need to grease yourself up like a cross-Channel swimmer!" says GP Dr Matt Piccaver. "Cover your body with moisturiser morning and night, and keep a pot in your bag to top up during the day."
Your doctor can prescribe different emollients, but not all of them will work for everyone. Apply after a shower when the skin’s still damp to help trap in moisture. Do this rigorously, even when you don’t have symptoms.
Don’t panic if your favourite cream stops working – you may need to switch between a couple of brands.
3. Visit the Doctor
For cases of severe eczema, your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist who can prescribe steroid cream, special bandages and wet wraps, or even ultraviolet light therapy.
Although steroids may have nasty side-effects if used long term, a short course is perfectly safe. If left untreated, severe eczema can cause lichenification, which causes the skin to become thick and leathery.
Dr Rob’s best treatment for a child suffering from eczema? "I recommend the parent gives the child a big hug to show that contact won’t hurt them. All too often people are frightened to touch sufferers because they’re worried about causing them pain, or of catching it – but eczema is not contagious," says Dr Rob.
4. Go natural
There are plenty of ways you can soothe your skin naturally. Make sure your sheets are cotton, which is kinder to the skin than synthetic materials – you could even try wearing cotton gloves at night to prevent scratching. Oatbran has been used for centuries to treat skin conditions.
"Take a couple of handfuls of oatbran and pop it in a muslin bag or old pair of tights. Add the bag to your bath, or hang it from your showerhead to soothe sore skin," says Dr Matt.
If a bath full of porridge doesn’t appeal, try aloe vera gel – keep it in the fridge so it’s cool and refreshing, or drink aloe vera juice. Coconut oil is favoured by many sufferers – choose an organic, cold pressed variety and rub onto damp skin.
There is often a link with your state of mind and your skin, so set aside time to relax. It is common for eczema to flare up during stressful periods, such as a break-up or starting a new job. "Find ways to reduce stress, such as meditation, yoga or therapy," says nutritionist to the stars Kim Pearson. "It’s also important to get enough sleep."
5. Watch out for Food triggers
Food allergies or sensitivities can be a common trigger for many eczema sufferers. Cow’s milk is a well-known culprit, but other common problem foods include eggs, soya and wheat.
Kim Pearson suggests considering a food elimination diet, which involves cutting
out common trigger foods for a period of time and then gradually reintroducing them to see if they cause a flare-up.
"Certain foods can promote inflammation – it’s worth trying to reduce your intake of sugar, refined carbohydrates, and highly processed and deep-fried foods," she says. Keep a symptom and food diary to see if you can establish any links between what you eat and the state of your eczema.
For happy skin, make sure you eat plenty of foods that are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, such as oily fish, flaxseeds and walnuts. "Opt for low glycemic, whole carbohydrate sources such as oats, quinoa and sweet potato, as well as low-sugar fruits such as berries, apples and pears," says Kim. All types of eczema can potentially be improved by changes in diet.
For more information on eczema, visit the British Skin Foundation.
Stress is not always something we consider as a cause of eczema. More often than not we look for external sources like the clothes we wear. But stress can trigger a number of different issues in our body, eczema being just one of them.
Here are a few simple ways to lower your stress levels
- Walk more
- Have a bedtime bath
- Slow your life down
- Take a deep breath
Escape life by reading a book, playing a computer game
Best eczema treatments
Perfect for kids and adults and nice and affordable too, Child's Farm products are ones to consider, they're renowned for providing effective solutions for adults with eczema.
The gentle and unfragranced formula is suitable for all skin types and can be used of your face, hands and body.
Price: £2.95, Amazon - buy here now
With winter almost certainly on the way, Eucerin's UreaRepair range is a great place to start for dry, flaky skin.
The formula is enriched with hero ingredient Urea, which is naturally found in the skin to help keep it hydrated and protected. It's perfect for protecting that natural barrier and topping up what you're losing.
Price: £12.50, Boots - buy here now
Created by an NHS nurse and her husband to provide relief to over-washed, irritated hands - Nursem is the dose of hydration cracked hands need.
The newest addition to the range is a fragrance-free, fast-absorbing, as well as being developed specifically for those with ultra-sensitive skin. The product uses naturally derived ingredients to soothe and protect dry and sore hands.
Price: £9.99, Nursem - buy here now
This velvety and vegan friendly formula leaves skin feeling soft and supple, leaving behind no greasy residue.
Bourn Beautiful Naturals is all about maintaining hair and skin's optimal moisture balance in formulas that are both effective and feel luxurious.
Price: £11.50, Bourn Beautiful Naturals - buy here now
This deeply nourishing Ultra Dry Skin Cream is packed with organic oils, including neem, chamomile, tamanu and chickweed to calm and restore the driest of skins.
The ultra-rich texture is also with aloe vera and squalane brings an instant relief to stressed skin. Use the skin remedy on feet, hands, elbows or any area in need of TLC.
Price: £45, The Organic Pharmacy - buy here now
If you want quick results for particularly dry patches of skin or even for a spot of contact dermatitis you may want to choose something which provides higher levels of hydration.
Cetraben Ointment provides high-levels of hydration for areas of very dry skin and creates a protective barrier on the skin to ease itching.
Price: £6.99, Lloyds Pharmacy - buy here now
MooGoo Sensitive Skin Balm is a natural steroid cream alternative (great for those weaning off steroids or trying to avoid).
One sells every 1.5 minutes in the UK, it's a great relief for sore, flaky or irritated skin.
Price: £9, Holland and Barrett - buy here now
Farmologie, a is a new adult skincare range from award-winning brand Childs Farm.
The range is enriched with additional state-of-the-art natural and naturally derived ingredients with exceptional benefits for dry, sensitive and even eczema-prone skin.
It's also a great deal at under £3.50.
Price: £3.49, Childs Farm - buy here now
Rebecca Marriage, 43, a freelance marketeer from East Sussex, has learnt how to handle her eczema…
"I’ve had eczema all my life and have come to terms with it in my 40s. At school, I was called “porridge face” and couldn’t cover it with make-up because it irritated my skin.
It used to be on my body with a few facial patches, but it has moved entirely to my face, which swells up so I get deep creases around my eyes. My skin dries out so much that it cracks – I’ve had to teach myself to smile even when it’s painful.
It’s easy to withdraw from the world when having a flare-up, but isolating yourself is likely to make your symptoms more severe. Hiding away will only make you feel depressed, and there’s a link between eczema and negative emotional states. It takes a massive effort to be confident, but the pay-off is huge.
My eczema used to be constant, but now I only flare up once a week. There are lots of treatments, and you have to experiment to find which one works for you, but the biggest battle is self-acceptance.
I found the prescription cream Protopic has made a huge difference, as it doesn’t seem to affect my collagen levels, and I like Purepotions Skin Salvation cream.
I recently found a foundation my skin could handle – it’s called Lycogel, and was originally developed for people recovering from plastic surgery."
For more from Rebecca, go to Beczema.com.