What is Eczema?

“What is eczema exactly?”

Millions of people find themselves asking this question when an EXTREMELY itchy rash brings them in to see their doctor.  The word “eczema” actually means “skin inflammation”, and defines a group of skin conditions that cause various symptoms such as dryness, irritation, swelling, itching, and oozing of the skin.  An eczema rash that occurs when the skin comes into contact with an irritant or when one is bitten by an insect will most likely resolve once the irritant is removed or the insect venom absorbed.

However, the term eczema is often used in reference to the most common chronic form of eczema: atopic dermatitis (“atopic” meaning “an inherited condition” and “dermatitis” meaning “irritation and inflammation of the outer layer of skin”).  When you ask most health professionals the question “what is eczema?” you are likely to learn more about this ongoing, incurable form that usually develops in infancy or childhood.

Symptoms of Eczema

Known for periods of distressful symptoms (called “flare-ups”) alternating with periods of remission, the atopic dermatitis form of eczema almost always begins as a dry skin rash with intense itching.  Breakouts may be widespread, covering large areas of the body, or may be limited to small areas such as the face, hands, feet, bends of the arms, and backs of the knees.  When a long-time eczema sufferer is asked the question “what is eczema?” he or she will usually respond with strong references to the most distressful of all symptoms: agonizing itching.

Without proper treatment this itching is often so severe that the eczema sufferer is helpless to avoid scratching.  Scratching leads to redness, swelling, and scaling of the affected areas, the skin becomes thickened and begins to crack.  The cracked skin then begins to weep, causing further inflammation and more itching.  This cycle is an endless one, and the broken, moist skin soon becomes a breeding ground for bacteria.  Skin infections are serious and, at the very least, leave permanent scarring of the skin.

Don’t take Eczema for granted

As distressful as this condition is to millions of sufferers, we still do not know what causes eczema of the atopic dermatitis type.  At one time, doctors believed psychiatric illness was to blame.  While stress does play a part in contributing to flare-ups, we now know it does not cause the disease.  Researchers believe the immune systems of eczema sufferers overreact to irritants (often referred to as “triggers”) in the environment, such as harsh detergents, wool, foods, and pet dander.  Because eczema is commonly seen in families where allergies and asthma are prevalent, researchers continue to study this genetic link.

Until the answer to the question “what is eczema?” includes a definitive cause and cure, the goal of treatment is limited to prevention of flare-ups and management of symptoms.  Eczema sufferers must avoid triggers and limit stress.  A daily skin care regimen is essential in the prevention of eczema flare-ups, relief from distressful itching, and in the limitation of skin damage.