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Dermatitis, the itch that won't quit--no matter how you refer to eczema, it's a frustrating skin issue to suffer from. Growing up I witnessed my younger sister experience flare ups so bad that I got itchy just looking at her and was relieved each time that eczema was one thing I didn't inherit from my parents.
However fast-forward to my adult life and every fall as soon as the temperature drops into the mid-50s, inflamed, blotchy eczema patches show up on my thighs and calves. Although I swear my flare ups are the product of dry, radiator-induced N.Y.C apartment air, I turned to dermatologist Manjula S. Jegasothy MD, CEO and Founder of Miami Skin Institute to find out what exactly causes eczema and how to deal with the skin condition without going crazy from itching or cause permanent skin damage.
So, What Is Eczema?
Eczema is a skin condition that's either inherited or a genetic condition where the skin inflammation is triggered by conditions that are usually very specific to each person. "Eczema manifests in a myriad of forms, some of which are more common in childhood (such as big patches on the inside of the elbow and behind the knees) or in early adulthood (hand eczema)," explains Dr. Jegasothy. About 15% of people experience moderate to severe eczema where they have large patches of inflammation that itch and cause cuts in the skin throughout their lifetime.
What Causes Seasonal Eczema?
Luckily, if you have eczema it doesn't mean that you'll experience outbreaks year-round. Just like seasonal allergies, some people's eczema only flares up during seasonal changes. "Eczema is thought to be linked to the same genetics that cause allergic rhinitis (hay fever and asthma). As such, the individual triggers for either of these conditions can be certain types of pollen, or plant material that is prevalent in the air in certain times of the years," says Dr. Jegasothy.
How To Prevent It?
Bad news: Since it's genetic, there is no cure for eczema. However, there are a number of ways you can prevent flare ups. Along with moisturizing using an emollient, ceramide-rich cream such as Avene XeraCalm A.D Lipid-Replenishing Balm ($32; dermstore.com), treating cuts and skin fissures with topical antibiotic creams such as hydrocortisone, and although it's easier said than done: not scratching. Most importantly, Dr. Jegasothy recommends showering in lukewarm water because it's thought that heat can trigger blood vessels and inflammatory cell activity in the skin, and always moisturizing as soon as you step out of the shower.
How To Treat Outbreaks
We've already said it, but we'll say it again: The most important thing is to not scratch. If your skin is itching uncontrollably, half a tablet of Claritin can offer some relief. In a less traditional way to manage the discomfort Dr. Jegasothy says she also tells patients to lightly tap the itchy area with her hands because "this activates superficial pain receptors in the skin, which then block superficial itch receptors, temporarily stopping the itch sensation." She also says that if broken skin becomes green, painful, or contains pus, head to the dermatologist or emergency room to get oral antibiotics.
What To Do With the Aftermath of Flare Ups
Since eczema's inflammatory characteristics are confined to the superficial layer of the skin (aka the epidermis), there isn't a risk of scarring but they can cause pigmentary alteration--especially for darker skin tones--which can take months to heal. However, if lesions are scratched deeply and intensely, the actual scratched areas can become scars, which are tricky to treat. "If they are pigmentary issues, then bleaching cream, sun avoidance, or light-fruit acid peels may help," explains Dr. Jegasothy." If they are deeper, scratched dermal scars, then light laser resurfacing such as Fraxel treatment may be your current only option."