Itch, itch, itch. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Chronic inflammation of the skin, accompanied by intense itching is most commonly diagnosed as eczema.
Eczema is a form of dermatitis (which means inflammation of the skin) that flares up time and time again. It usually starts in early childhood and tends to run in families. The severity and duration of flare-ups varies from person to person, and from time to time in the same person. It affects 15 million Americans, including 10-20% of infants.
Quick disclaimer – I am required to clearly state that I am not a licensed medical professional nor do I pretend to be one on this site. Take what I write as a launching off point to do your own research. My advice, experience, and suggestions are not to be considered medical advice.
There are many different types of eczema. Here is a quick overview of each:
- Atopic dermatitis – the most severe and chronic (long-lasting) kind of eczema. Atopic dermatitis is a disease that causes itchy, inflamed skin. It almost always begins in childhood, usually during infancy. Atopic dermatitis falls into a category of diseases called atopy, a term originally used to describe the allergic conditions asthma and hay fever. Atopic dermatitis was included in the atopy category because it often affects people who either suffer from asthma and/or hay fever or have family members who do.
- Contact dermatitis – is a reaction that can occur when the skin comes in contact with certain substances, which can cause skin inflammation. Contact dermatitis is most often seen around the hands or parts of the body that touched the irritant/allergen.
- Dyshidrotic eczema – is a blistering type of eczema, which is twice as common in women. It is limited to the fingers, palms and soles of the feet. Your hands may have itchy, scaly patches of skin that flake constantly or become red cracked and painful.
- Nummular eczema – more common in males, nummular eczema is due to dry skin in the winter months that causes non-itchy round patches. It can affect any part of the body particularly the lower leg. One or many patches appear, and may persist for weeks or months.
- Seborrheic dermatitis – red, scaly, itchy rash in various locations on the body. Very common on the scalp and is often seen on parts of the body plague with fungal infections.
What are the symptoms eczema?
- The skin usually looks and feels dry and can be scaly and pealing.
- Some areas of the skin become red and inflamed. The most common areas affected are next to skin creases, such as the palm of hands, front of the elbows and wrists, backs of knees, and around the neck. However, any areas of skin may be affected. The face is commonly affected in babies with atopic eczema.
- Inflamed skin is itchy. The more you scratch, the more it itches.
- Sometimes the inflamed areas of skin become blistered and weepy which can lead to infection.
What causes eczema?
As I mentioned before, eczema most often runs in families. Certain genes can make some people have extra-sensitive skin. An overactive immune system is thought to be a factor as well. Also, it's thought that defects in the skin barrier contribute to eczema. These defects can allow moisture out through the skin and let germs in. (Using non-natural skin care products can actually open the skin up to eczema since they break down the skin barrier).
Factors that may trigger eczema include:
- Food allergies
- Contact with irritating substances (wool, synthetics, fur, body fluids)
- Environmental allergens
- Hormonal changes
- Poor gut health
- Autoimmune diseases
- Heat and sweat
- Cold, dry climates/windy conditions
- Dried out skin
- Dust mites
Most doctors are quick to prescribe chemical laden barrier creams or for severe eczema, steroid creams. While these may offer some relief, they often times simply perpetuate the cycle. While you have to do your own research and determine what method of treatment and prevention works best for you, in my experience, the more natural the treatment, the longer the time I have between flare ups.
So what is my go-to natural treatment for eczema? Coconut Oil!
According to the National Eczema Association, the best moisturizers for eczema are greasy and oily and not water based. Coconut oil is clearly a good match here as it contains less water than commercial lotions and it definitely is oily. Despite not having a high water content, coconut oil's moisture retaining capacity is what helps restore dry, scaly skin, keeping it hydrated and healthy.
Let's get a little geeky, shall we? In healthy skin flora, lipases are enzymes that digest sebum (body oils) into fatty acids. This makes the skin more acidic, which prevents bacteria from penetrating, something that is very important if you have cracked skin or open sores. Coconut oil removes bacteria from the skin, by being converted into fatty acids which produce an acidic layer in the skin making it inhospitable for survival of bacteria. It also prevents further entry by the bacteria due to the increased skin surface lipids (protective layer) it creates. Cool huh?
Let's not forget that the medium chain fatty acids also found in coconut oil possess antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties! This means extra protection against the microbes responsible for eczema. Coconut oil really is nature's perfect healer!
How to use Coconut Oil for Eczema
Healing is a two way street. Inside out and outside in! So to promote healing from the inside out, be sure you are consuming coconut oil daily! Mothers who are breast feeding a baby with eczema can take coconut oil themselves to help increase the healthy properties of their breast milk, passing these along to their babies.
Slather It On!
Yep – grab your jar of coconut oil and apply liberally. Everywhere. As often as you think of it. For hand eczema, try putting on a pair of cotton gloves afterwards. This will protect your hands and allow the coconut oil more of an opportunity to work its magic!
Bathe In It!
That's right! Hop in the tub and soak in water mixed with coconut oil. Fill the tub with warm water (not hot – eczema hates hot water!) Then pour in a cup, yes one cup, of coconut oil. Stir it evenly so that the coconut oil mixes with water as best as an oil can. Hop on in and sit there for 30 minutes. The pores of the skin will open up, giving the coconut oil molecules the opportunity to soak in and effectively remove impurities in the skin pores. After soaking gently towel dry yourself. This method is great to use if eczema attacks the skin of hard to reach areas like the back or buttocks.
I also happen to love two other natural remedies which I use in tandem with the coconut oil.
Burdock: This herb is good for reducing inflammation and also destroys inulin which has been linked to eczema outbreaks. You can make a tea from this which is easy to make and drink.
Chamomile: Chamomile has a long historical use for skin ailments. One study showed that topical chamomile cream was as effective as a type of low-dose steroid cream for eczema. It can also be taken internally as a tea. (link to Lauren)
For those of you who have battled eczema, what natural remedies brought you relief?