To the outside world, someone with eczema has red itchy skin that looks dry and painful. People might tell you to stop scratching or to moisturise more… as if you hadn’t thought of that already. But as with any chronic condition, eczema is more than just what you see on the surface.
For children, those with eczema are more likely to suffer from emotional, behavioural and hyperactivity problems compared to their healthy school mates.1,2 In adolescence, eczema sufferers have an increased risk of mental health problems and suicidal thoughts, and teenage boys with eczema are less likely to have romantic relationships than their peers.3 Even in adults, eczema patients generally have a reduced quality of life and are more likely to suffer from stress and depression.4 Patients with eczema are 36% more likely to attempt suicide than those without,5 so it’s clearly more than itchy skin!
The word ‘atopy’ describes a genetic predisposition to develop allergic conditions, including eczema and asthma,6 and another name for eczema is atopic dermatitis. Atopic individuals are likely to have a heightened immune response to things that shouldn’t be harmful to us, like pollen and peanuts, and this results in allergies. Because allergies, eczema and asthma are all closely linked, if you have eczema, chances are you have a few allergies and maybe asthma too.
Currently eczema can be treated to some extent but cannot be cured. For most children, their eczema symptoms will fade or disappear as they get older, but for others it is a life-long affliction. We talked to Jacob, a 27-year-old chemist and life-long eczema sufferer, for an insight into living with eczema and some advice for dealing with the condition.
Who are you and what do you do?
Hello, I am Jacob Spear, I am a 27-year-old Chemistry graduate. I currently work as a product developer in the soft drink industry and I live in Bolton.
Tell us about your first memory of having eczema.
I’ve had eczema since I was 9 months old. I don’t remember anything about eczema from when I was really young – I probably remember treatment more vividly than symptoms actually. One thing that comes to mind is being wrapped in freezing cold bandages with moisturiser on them that I would wear under pyjamas overnight. Also, just being completely slathered in thick moisturiser.
People with eczema are more likely to have allergies and suffer from asthma too. Do you have any allergies? Do they cause flare ups in your eczema?
Yes, I have mild allergies to animal hair which make me sniffly, wheezy and a bit itchy. I remember having a fairly bad reaction to a horse as a child: I came out in a load of small pale lumps on my skin. But by far the biggest allergy I have is grass pollen. It probably has a bigger impact on my asthma than my eczema but with a lot of exposure, especially direct contact to grass then my skin will become quite irritated, red and very itchy.
Has having eczema affected your relationships and the people around you?
Hard to say when it comes to friends, classmates and colleagues. Eczema is a very visible condition, especially for people like me who are affected on the face, neck, hands etc. So basically everyone I know is aware that I have eczema. It’s always just been part and parcel of me, almost an aspect of my identity – so I guess it effects people overall picture of me but I wouldn’t say it has been the cause of any significant changes in relationships.
It certainly had an impact on my parents’ life especially when I was very young, they had to apply all my treatment and take me to the doctors and pick up prescriptions etc for many many years. And most significant of all is with my wife, who it affects in a few ways. She finds it distressing when I scratch a lot because she doesn’t want me to hurt myself and make it worse so she is always telling me to stop scratching, which is a kind of an exercise in futility and a bit annoying for me but definitely comes from a good place. Also, I’m quite sensitive to temperature – my eczema gets worse if I am too hot or too cold. If I stay in a cold house my skin dries out a lot so I like having the heating on, whereas my wife overheats really quickly so we find it tricky to find a nice balance where we are both comfortable. Probably the biggest problem is that I scratch in my sleep and especially when I am in a kind of ‘half awake-half asleep’ state. It can keep her awake, which is understandably very annoying for her. It doesn’t cause huge arguments or anything but it is a source of frustration. In summary, she has the patience of a saint and I am very fortunate to have such a kind and caring wife.
And what about its effect on you… would you say that having eczema has affected your mental health?
If I have a particularly bad flare up it affects my sleep, my energy and my focus, all of which contribute to my general mood and productivity but fortunately it doesn’t cause me to have big swings in my emotional state. Overall, I’ve been fortunate in that I have never had any major concerns with my mental health. Having had eczema for as long as I remember means that it is kind of just the norm for me and I take it in my stride.
It would be great if someone could come up with a miracle eczema cure. In the meantime, there are a few medications and coping strategies out there. Have the doctors been able to help your condition?
Yes, I have had some measure of success with different medication and strategies from doctors. Steroids, particularly prednisolone and mometazone furoate, are very effective at treating my eczema but they are not the kind of medication that you want to use regularly. There is also a pretty big range of moisturisers out there and with help from doctors I believe I have found the right type that works the best for me.
What’s the worst thing about having eczema for you?
Tricky one, possibly just that it is constant. I am always aware of an itch somewhere. For a more specific answer, as I mentioned I am very temperature sensitive. My skin dries out when I am in a cold room for a long time, even if I wrap up warm. But conversely I hate hot weather and if I get too hot and sweaty I get extremely itchy. It makes it a challenge to go places on a sunny day or do exercise without finding myself scratching a lot. I walk or cycle to work and if it is a warm day or I’ve had to wear a raincoat (which is regularly because I live in Lancashire), once I arrive at work it takes me 10-15 minutes to cool down and stop scratching, which isn’t a great way to start a day!
So you have a degree, a job and you’re married. Your condition clearly hasn’t stopped you living. Are there any products that you find helpful in coping with eczema day-to-day?
I try to have access to a little thing of vaseline wherever I go, just to help soothe, moisturise and protect a bit of dry skin or a scab. But other than that I basically stick to what the doctor tells me to do.
Finally, what’s your top tip for anyone struggling with severe eczema?
I will preface this by saying that I am dubious of top tips for eczema, countless people have told me with complete confidence that they, or someone they know, or even someone they just heard of, have had their eczema cured by something or other; ranging from specific diets, to miscellaneous creams to just taking a cold shower. Eczema is a complicated condition which is affected by a huge range of factors. There unfortunately isn’t a one size fits all answer in medication let alone lifestyle choices. Having said that, people generally have good intentions and maybe one day, someone’s advice will be the golden ticket that cures me completely! Rant over.
One of my biggest struggles with eczema is a behavioural one – I scratch incessantly, which only makes things worse but it is extremely difficult to stop. Something that genuinely helps is distraction, something to keep my hands busy. For me that comes in the form of playing computer games, board games, musical instruments and I even learnt to whittle a couple of years ago. It would be a wild (although very convenient) thing to say that playing computer games is the cure for eczema and sadly I can’t, but outside of doing what your doctor recommends it’s just about finding the little things that make your day a little easier.