If you’ve never had to deal with eczema yourself, odds are good that you know at least one person who has, or currently is. Atopic dermatitis, the most prevalent form of eczema, affects more than 3 million Americans each year. This chronic skin condition causes inflamed, itchy, scaly skin on various parts of the body, most often on the hands, feet, chest, knees, elbows, wrists, and/or ankles. Cases of mild eczema often go away after a week or two after a flare up, sometimes faster with proper treatment. More severe cases, however, may last much longer, become debilitatingly painful, and/or lead to infection.
So, what causes eczema? One might think that the answers would be clear given just how common the condition is. However, the jury is still out on the exact causes of eczema. Despite not having concrete answers, researchers and dermatologists have a number of theories regarding the roots of eczema, which all seem to center around the skin’s inability to protect itself from allergens, bacteria, and irritants. Here we’ll explore some of the factors that may play into one’s propensity towards this skin condition and related issues.
For better or worse, no one gets to choose the DNA they’re born with, and it seems that some people are more genetically predisposed to eczema than others. Studies have found that eczema is more common in those with family histories featuring asthma, allergies, and other overactive immune responses. After reviewing your family history and running some tests, your dermatologist may be able to determine whether you’re more likely to suffer from eczema, and offer advice and treatment options for preventing flare ups and complications.
Despite our genetic outcomes, none of us exist in a vacuum. We must interact with our environments each day. The air we breathe, the plants we touch, the food we eat – all of it affects our bodies in different ways, sometimes for the worse. Researchers have found a number of possible connections between one’s environment and one’s propensity towards eczema. For instance, areas with high pollution levels tend to harbor more people with eczema. The same goes for colder, drier climates. There may also be a connection between food allergies and eczema, particularly in young children. While it’s unlikely that any of these things cause eczema, they can trigger a flare up in those who already have the condition.
Our immune systems are designed to protect our bodies from harm, but sometimes they work too hard, or not hard enough. Immune system malfunctions can be genetic or can derive from a number of diseases. Whatever the case may be, there may be a link between a defective, overactive immune system and eczema symptoms. For instance, allergies are conditions caused by an improper immune response to a foreign substance. While eczema itself is not an allergy, it can flare up much like an allergy. Indeed, allergies can trigger an eczema breakout, indicating some connection between one’s immune system and the skin condition.
Skin, our largest organ, is the barrier between our insides and the external world, proving a protective layer that keeps unwanted pathogens from entering our bodies. Like a wall protecting a city, if there are holes, weak spots, or breaches in the barrier, outside visitors can make their way in. The same goes for your skin. If there are defects with your skin’s barrier, you’re at greater risk for viral bacterial infections. Those with atopic dermatitis may have a weakened or defective skin barrier, often due to a lack of filaggrin (typically a genetic mutation), an essential protein for protecting skin and maintaining skin’s moisture.
There are also plenty of things we do in our daily lives that may trigger an eczema flare up. These include things like wearing wool fabric clothing, taking excessively hot and long showers or baths, using irritable soap, not using proper skin lotion, and more. Your dermatologist can give you more advice on which of your activities may be causing your eczema to act up.
Researchers remain hard at work trying to understand the underlying cause of eczema in order to find a cure. While there may be no cure for eczema at the moment, eczema treatment is readily available, with a wide variety of options for different circumstances and types of eczema. Patients with mild eczema may simply need to adjust their lifestyle in minor ways, such as changing their soap, using a good moisturizer, avoiding irritants and other triggers, and taking shorter showers. For those suffering from severe eczema, such as atopic dermatitis, your dermatologist may recommend a topical or oral steroid treatment or antihistamines to reduce inflammation. In the most severe cases, ultraviolet light therapy may help as well.
If you suffer from any form of eczema, or if you’re having any other skin-related issues, the experts at Premier Dermatology are here to help identify and treat your problem. To learn more about our team and all the services we provide, contact us.