Facts about Healthy Skin: What is eczema?

Although it may not appear immediately obvious, the skin is a very important organ. Indeed, it is the largest organ in the body, and it has several vital functions to perform.

In a nutshell, the skin…

• affords a layer of protection from noxious substances in the environment
• is water-resistant and protects us from leaking our own fluids!
• plays an important role in temperature regulation
• helps to rid the body of toxins and waste products by sweat­ing them out
• allows us to feel the difference between hot and cold, rough and smooth, pain and pleasure, etc.
• Finally — and this may come as a surprise — the skin is an integral part of the immune system. It contains many cells which belong to the immune system, and we shall meet these in due course as we look at how allergies affect the skin.

What is eczema?
Eczema is a term rather loosely applied to a wide range of chronic inflammatory skin conditions. It derives from a Greek word meaning to ‘boil out’ or ‘ooze’. There are numerous differ­ent kinds of eczema, but the commonest by far is atopic eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis. In practice, we refer to it simply as eczema.

Who gets it?
Eczema is an increasingly common disease of early infancy and childhood. Indeed, it has become so common since the Second World War that we can now expect some 20 per cent of all chil­dren to be affected at some stage in their youth. Of these, 60 per cent will develop the condition during their first year of life. Most of the others will get it before they reach their fifth birth­day.

Will they grow out of it?
It is often said that children grow out of their eczema. This is a true statement, but it needs some qualification. Two-thirds of infants (less than one year old) with eczema will be free of symptoms by the age of five; and half of the children who develop eczema after their first birthday will be trouble-free by the time they reach their mid-teens. In the most encouraging studies, up to 90 per cent become symptom-free in their adult lives. However, almost all patients will ‘carry’ their dry skin into adulthood. This will predispose them to occasional attacks of eczema. They may also find themselves prone to irritant derma­titis. Some individuals will retain their eczema throughout life.