When Beth’s eczema flares, she gets itchy red blotches on the backs of her arms – and sometimes from nose to cheek. “Just the left side,” she says. “Never on the right. This month, I’ve got a dime-size spot on my hand that won’t go away.”
For this young professional, dry air and stress are the biggest factors setting off her skin problems. For others, heat – and its accompanying sweat – sparks the itch. Summer wardrobes of sleeveless tops and shorts expose it all.
You may think eczema is only a children’s disease, but recent statistics show it also affects more than 10 percent of adults in the United States and is closely associated with environmental allergies and asthma. While food allergies go hand-in-hand with childhood eczema, they are less tied to adults.
The first step in controlling eczema is to know your allergies – pollen, mold, dust mites, pets and other environmental allergens can set off skin irritation as much as (or more than!) heat. Visiting a board-certified allergist may help with diagnosing what’s behind your eczema – and what you can do to prevent it.
The next step: conditioning skin and soothing the itch:
• Keep up with moisturizers – just because summer humidity feels clammy doesn’t mean you can let up on keeping skin hydrated. Follow the 3-minute rule: apply moisturizers right after a warm (not hot!) bath to seal in the water.
• Choose creams or ointments, rather than lotions. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends ones that contain ceramide olive oil, jojoba oil or shea butter. Other ingredients skin doctors recommend: lactic acid, urea, hyaluronic acid, dimethicone, glycerin, lanolin, mineral oil, and petrolatum.
• Skip harsh deodorizing soaps and products that contain alcohol, fragrance, reinoids or alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), says AAD.
• Screen wisely – sunshine eases eczema for some people, but skin cancer prevention remains crucial. Choose and use sunscreen without perfumes, dyes and alcohols. And if you’re a new parent, don’t put sunscreen on your baby until after 6 months of age.
• Rinse off – at the beach, pool or club – as often as possible to wash allergens, irritants (salt, sand, chlorine) and sweat off your skin. And reapply that moisturizing sunscreen.
• Watch your eyes – The Mayo Clinic points out that severe eczema can cause eyelid irritation (blepharitis) and conjunctivitis. See an eye doctor if you experience uncomfortable itching or watering of the eye.
Finally – baby yourself. Lisa Choy of the National Eczema Association (www.nationaleczema.org) recommends caring for your skin like you would a baby: nurture it; look out for it, by avoiding perfumes, fragrances and harsh chemicals; clean it; feed it with moisturizer; listen to it (when it itches); then do it all over again.
By Laurie Ross
Reviewed by Martha Hogan, MD