It can pop up without warning. Painful, itchy and inflamed skin. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, more than 30 percent of the U.S. population has eczema, the name given to a group of conditions that inflame the skin.
There is no cure for most types of eczema, but Kari Martin, MD, University of Missouri Health Care dermatologist, says advances in treatment can keep flare-ups in check and help you manage the condition. She answers some of the most common questions about eczema.
What does eczema look like?
Eczema typically begins as an itchy, irritated dry spot on the skin. In babies, it usually starts on the cheeks. For older children, teens and adults, it can present on skin folds or on the elbows, knees, hands, wrists or ankles.
Why is it important to treat eczema?
Eczema can cause quality-of-life struggles. It’s painful and extremely itchy. It’s linked to an increase in depression and insomnia, and it can make some sufferers self-conscious about their appearance. Eczema is a chronic disease, and there’s no cure, but staying on top of the symptoms can improve your quality of life.
Can eczema be life-threatening?
Eczema in and of itself is not life-threatening, but if uncontrolled, it can have life-threatening complications. We can usually catch it early and manage it. However, some bacteria and viruses can cause infections in patients with eczema, leading to serious or potentially life-threatening complications.
If I have eczema, how can I get help?
Many patients with eczema can be managed by their primary care doctor. They are well-versed on how to care for it. But if a treatment isn’t working and your quality of life is affected, I would recommend seeing a dermatologist.
What is the most common treatment?
We try to address all underlying problems that may be contributing to the eczema, including allergies, asthma and the patient’s skin care routine. Because eczematous skin can’t seal itself tightly like it should, we try to do that artificially and make sure patients have a good skin care routine to keep as much moisture in the skin as possible. It’s also important to avoid products that have fragrance or irritating chemicals, which can make eczema worse. The first line of treatment is typically a basic topical corticosteroid or other anti-inflammatory medication applied directly to the affected skin. They are safe, effective, and fairly easy to use. When that’s not enough, we look at medicines given in pill and shot form. A specific type of light therapy is also an option for more serious cases.
What’s new about eczema treatment?
We’re starting to understand more about the disease and the multiple factors involved, including the immune system’s role. The FDA recently approved its first systemic, targeted medicine that treats the immune system abnormality in eczema. It’s been a long time coming and exciting to have as an option. And that’s not the only part that has changed recently. We used to target just the inflammation. Now we are looking at a multi-disciplinary approach for patients. When we address all of the factors together, patients have more success.