Itchy, dry, red, cracked, and sore: there's no denying that eczema can be a difficult (and uncomfortable) condition to get a handle on. And it's a common condition, too. "Eczema or atopic dermatitis affects 20 percent of children and two percent of adults worldwide," says Dr Catherine Borysiewicz, consultant dermatologist at London's Cadogan Clinic.
Of course, like all skin conditions, there are mild and more extreme cases, but for many eczema sufferers, a flare-up is all part and parcel of dealing with atopic dermatitis. Thankfully, there are things you can do at home to make your flare-up ease quicker and feel less uncomfortable. This National Eczema Week, we quizzed the very best experts in the business to give their wise words on what you can do to relieve your flare-up symptoms, plus what causes them in the first place.
What Is an Eczema Flare-Up?
Before delving into how we can manage one, let's look into exactly what an eczema flare-up is and what causes it. "The million-dollar question!", says Dr Amélie Seghers, consultant dermatologist at London's Cadogan Clinic and author of "Eczema, How to Ditch the Itch." As says Dr Jennifer Crawley, consultant dermatologist and spokesperson for Childs Farm points out, the most common cause of eczema is genetics. "Reasons for developing eczema are complex and multifactorial and consist of genetic and epigenetic factors. Most of the inherited genetic factors lead to physical and immunological disruption of your skin barrier," she explains. Although the most common cause of eczema in general is genetics, the flare-ups people experience can be due to a number of common triggers, Dr Sharon Wong, leading UK-based consultant dermatologist and hair specialist, tells POPSUGAR. "A number of common trigger factors include, stress, skin infections, and allergies." She explains that, for some people, this can be anything from food groups, such as dairy, to contact allergens such as animal dander or nickel. In addition to this, "the cooler winter months often worsens dryness and often triggers eczema flare-ups."
To put it simply, Dr Seghers has a great way of thinking about an eczema flare-up: "If your body is a temple, your skin is the wall that protects it. The outer layer of your skin has a classic brick-and-mortar structure. A lot of people with eczema are predisposed to eczema because they are born with poor quality mortar. A poor quality wall will result in two things: water will be lost through the wall, resulting in dry skin, and irritants such as allergens can penetrate the wall and provoke a reaction or flare."
How to Prevent and Treat an Eczema Flare-Up
Of course, prevention is always better than cure when it comes to a flare-up, but it happens. Whilst a flare-up is never ideal and certainly can be sore, it's not all bad news — promise! There are ways you can manage your eczema, and the even better news is that the simpler the better when it comes to treatment. "When eczema is flared, pare back to simple skin care," says Dr Wong. Firstly, cut out all soaps and fragrances; this is to make sure the skin isn't exposed to further irritation and make sure it's not stripped of its natural oils. Dr Wong also advises not to use plant or natural oils, as these aren't as effective as moisturisers for eczema and may potentially trigger further sensitivity.
Instead, be prepared to moisturise a lot using specially formulated creams. "It's not uncommon that during a severe flare-up involving a large surface area of the body, your skin will require 500g of moisturiser every 1-2 weeks," explains Dr Wong. This means it's essential to top up on moisturiser throughout the day and pay close attention to particularly flared areas of the skin. It's also important to stay hydrated, so make sure you're drinking a lot of water when you experience a flare-up.
Now you know you need to moisturise, but the question is: moisturise with what? It can be overwhelming scanning the shop shelves for the right product. Ingredients to look for include: ceramides (found in CeraVe Moisturising Cream (£16)), glycerin (a top ingredient in the Childs Farm Unfragranced Moisturiser (£4)), and liquid paraffin, which is often in thicker moisturisers like Epaderm Ointment (£13), as these "will essentially acts like a plaster whilst the skin barrier is broken down during a flare-up, which allows the skin to heal," explains Dr Wong. When it comes to body wash, you should also look out for soap alternatives, such as Dermol Wash (£6), Aveeno Skin Relief Moisturising Body Wash (£10), and Oilatum Eczema Emollient Shower Gel (£10). As Dr Ismat Nasiruddin, doctor at Pulse Light Clinic notes, "they take some getting used to for people who normally use perfumed or foaming products", but it's worth it.
In addition to staying moisturised to manage and prevent further flare-ups, you may also want to avoid contact with fabrics such as wools and synthetic materials, which may irritate your skin. Wear clothes made from natural fibres such as cotton or linen instead. In addition to this, Dr Borysiewicz, advises to protect your hands by wearing gloves when doing housework to avoid contact with chemicals work and to try and keep your body cool as overheating can cause itching.
How the Pandemic Is Affecting Your Eczema
More recently, there's something else that makes things even more difficult to navigate when you have eczema: COVID-19. Although it's vital to reduce the spread of the virus, unsurprisingly, all that frequent handwashing and sanitising isn't doing much good for your skin condition. "Frequency and intensity of handwashing and use of alcohol gels has soared since coronavirus, and whilst essential for sanitisation, both will strip the skin of natural lipids, leading to a break down in the skin barrier. This, in turn, makes skin dry, sore, and irritated," explains Dr Wong.
To help lessen your symptoms, the main thing you can do to help is moisturise every time you wash your hands. Dr Seghers also recommends other basic preventative measures, such as using lukewarm water instead of hot, blotting hands dry instead of running, and making sure there's no soap left around or underneath rings and jewellery. In addition to this, if your hands are extremely dry and irritated, Dr Wong recommends using a thick hand mask or cream under cotton gloves for an intense boost of moisture overnight.
When to Seek Professional Help For Your Eczema Flare-Ups
If you're having a particularly bad eczema period or flare-up, Dr Wong says you can take some antihistamines, but it's important to know when to visit your doctor. "If your skin is red and inflamed, see your GP — they may start an appropriate strength topical steroid to calm the inflammation quickly." As a general rule, if you feel that your eczema (or any skin condition for that matter) isn't getting better or has worsened, visit your GP or dermatologist.