The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts
By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Q: What is eczema? Are there home remedies that I can use to help my skin?
A: Eczema refers to several conditions that share a pattern of changes in the surface of the skin. It’s the most common cause of skin inflammation. There are many types of eczema, depending on the cause, shape and location of the rash.
Usually eczema first appears as an episode of itching and redness of the skin. You also may have tiny bumps or blisters. Eczema can be a temporary condition caused by exposure to certain irritants, such as dish detergent or perfumed soaps or lotions. Or it may happen after an allergic skin reaction, such as a bout of poison ivy.
Doctors call it chronic eczema when it develops into a long-term condition. It leads to skin thickening, scaling, flaking, dryness and color changes.
Avoiding skin irritants is the first step in treating eczema:
–Don’t use perfumed products such as spray perfumes and fragrant soaps or moisturizers.
–Wear rubber gloves when you wash dishes.
–Wash your face with your hands instead of a washcloth, which may have detergent residue.
–Put laundry through an extra rinse cycle to eliminate laundry detergent residue that can cause skin itching.
If your skin is itchy, but you are uncertain as to the underlying irritant, eliminate current products until your skin is under control. Once your skin is no longer irritated, you can try your products again one at a time, a week or two apart, to see which one may be irritating your skin.
In the meantime, use a mild, unscented soap for bathing and an unscented moisturizer if your skin is dry. Applying an unscented lotion containing menthol can help relieve itching, and applying over-the-counter hydrocortisone to red, itchy areas can be helpful.
Chronic eczema is more difficult to treat and may require prescription strength medications. Eczema can also become infected with scratching, requiring prescription antibiotics on occasions.
Other conditions can sometimes masquerade as eczema. See your doctor if skin redness and irritation do not resolve. Effective treatment depends upon correct diagnosis.
(Howard LeWine, M.D. is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)