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Eczema - Identification and treatment

Infant's foot with eczema
Infant's foot with eczema

Winter months bring the typical bouts of dry skin for most of us, but dry skin can be a year-round problem for some.  Dry skin can range from  the ordinary symptoms of scaly or flaky skin to the more severe conditions of dermatitis, also known as eczema

Hand with severe eczema
courtesy of

What is eczema?  Eczema is actually a generalized term for many types of skin inflammation, and it affects all ages but is most commonly found in infants.  By the age of 3 at least half of infants will be free of eczema, while the other half will most likely contend with the condition off and on throughout their life.

What causes eczema?  There is really no known exact cause of eczema, but doctors believe an abnormal function of the immune system to be a factor.  Often times eczema sufferers may have a family history of the skin condition or a history of allergies.  Eczema can also be triggered by substances that are irritating to the skin such as soap, cosmetics, laundry detergent, clothing and even sweat.  In some cases, lifestyle modifications may be in order to avoid triggering the condition.

How is it diagnosed?  Because eczema is so similar in appearance to other skin diseases, it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose.  If you suspect that you may have eczema, a trip to your doctor may be in order.  Your physician may either take a biopsy of the skin or conduct an allergy test if allergic contact dermatitis is suspected.

Can it be treated?  Treatment is always based on an individuals age, health status, and type and severity of the condition.  Since there really isn't a cure, treatment of eczema is to get the itching and inflammation under control and of course prevent the condition from getting worse. You can either treat it yourself with home remedies or over the counter products, or go the route of prescription medication.  For self treatment, keep skin well-hydrated with lotions or creams, and avoid over-bathing.  Some people use oatmeal as a common remedy to relieve the itching. Another remedy to try out is sea water.  Sea water has been known to help with atopic eczema, and it has antiseptic properties.  If you decide on medical intervention from your doctor,  you may be given antihistamines to help with the itching, and corticosteroid creams for the inflammation.  Also, two topical medications are available for the treatment of eczema, but these drugs (Protopic and Elidel) are in a class that studies show as having a possible link to certain types of cancer.  Light therapy, using ultraviolet light ,can be of help in controlling eczema although overexposure to ultraviolet light is also risky since it has the potential to cause skin cancer.