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The word 'eczema' comes from the ancient Greek word 'ekzema', meaning to 'boil over' or break out' and there are estimated to be 230 million sufferers around the world. Also referred to by the terms' atopic dermatitis', 'allergic eczema' and 'atopic eczema', it is where the skin becomes inflamed and is often dry, itchy, red and sometimes scaly. In cases of severe eczema, the skin may form tiny liquid-filled blisters, or weep, bleed, become hard and crusted.

Although a third of Australians suffer eczema at some point in their lives, the condition is especially common in children, with 20% of children under two affected. At this age, skin all over the body may be affected, but as they get older specific parts of the body are more likely to develop eczema, for example, the knees and elbows. Adult sufferers tend to be most affected on the hands and feet, although eczema does tend to lessen with age.

The causes of eczema are not fully understood - a family history of the condition does influence whether or not their child will suffer eczema and where both parents have had the condition, a child stands 80% chance of developing it. Twins also have an 85% chance of suffering eczema if their twin has it. Eczema is generally connected to allergies and allergic reactions with a strong likelihood that someone that has allergies will develop eczema and the other way around. The condition is related to how the immune system functions within the skin.

Specific environments and conditions can act as triggers for eczema; for example, urban living and dry climates seem to make sufferers prone to eczema flare-ups, although conversely hot and humid climates have the same effect.

General measures

Firstly certain things can be done to minimise eczema on a day-to-day basis, for example.

Have warm showers instead of hot using a soap-free wash; pat your skin dry using a soft towel
Use moisturiser immediately after having a bath or shower to retain moisture in the skin
Have a shower after swimming to wash off the salt or chlorine
Cut the fingernails regularly to minimise accidentally scratching or breaking the skin
Wear clothing that is a natural fibre and not tight-fitting to avoid scratches
Clean your rooms to reduce dust mites
Wear cotton gloves at night to prevent scratching
Minimise stress
Food - artificial colour and preservative may make eczema worse for some people

Medical options

Anti-inflammatory steroid or non-steroid creams
Coal tar is another treatment that can be effective
Phototherapy (UV therapy) - can be useful for chronic eczema
Oral medications

Eczema is not contagious and, although it can be treated and managed, there is no cure as such for the condition.

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