Geeks Vs Loneliness: living with eczema

Eczema affects people of all ages, and it has ramifications. What's it like to suffer from eczema, though, and how can you deal with it?

A very warm welcome to Geeks Vs Loneliness, our regular spot where we try and talk about issues that may affect you, or the people around you. Our aim with these pieces is to hopefully destigmatise a few things, but mainly to get talking, and to offer a hint or two that may be of help.

This week, we’re handing over to the brilliant Katie Wong. And she wants to have a natter about eczema…

Whenever I tell people I suffer from eczema, the most likely response tends to be “I had that when I was a kid. I grew out of it as I got older”. It’s sometimes difficult to hide my disdain when they say this, like it’s supposed to make the condition feel a short-term issue.

In my case, it is a 33-year old issue. Definitely not short-term.

Ad – content continues below

My personal experience with eczema started when I was a child when my brother and I had a bad allergic reaction after eating some eggs. Panic quickly ensued and there was no WedMD that could provide a quick answer, and no quick treatment. After this, my parents took extra steps to control the symptoms. Carpets were replaced with wooden floors or tiles, curtains with blinds, and I underwent heaps of treatments such as incredibly selective diets that excluded red meat, dairy and colourings (I didn’t have Diet Coke until I was 21), disgusting herbal teas and wet bandages.

Things didn’t improve as I got older. When I was eight, my family relocated and the stress of trying to make new friends in a new school worsened my eczema, which in turn made me increasingly self-conscious during a time and place where you were only popular if you looked good. No-one wants to see bloody scabs or broken skin and when you’re a kid, it just fuels harsh comments and disgusted looks. Believe me – at that age, kids indeed can be cruel.

The biggest test came when I left home to go to university. While some people choose one close to their parents, I attended one located three hours away by train.Why? To be honest, I just didn’t want them to worry about me. Okay, their only daughter with major skin issues is moving three hours from home, so they are right to be worried. But they had already spent 20 years worrying. It was time to ease their burden.

It was initially difficult. For the first time, I had to be responsible for controlling my eczema, which – to that point – was something my parents oversaw. I eventually realised that my folks enforced a ‘can’t-do-this, can’t-have-that’ lifestyle for a reason: because it made life easier.

In short, I had to abide by that lifestyle.

This meant thinking twice about what I was buying from the supermarket, being aware of smoky areas and making sure I bought the right non-bio, fragrance-free detergent. Hell, I had to spend a few extra minutes debating whether to get cheese and baked bean-topped chips after a night out.

Ad – content continues below

Little did I know that at the age of 22, I was starting my own personal eczema education.

In the first year of uni, stress was becoming a huge factor. As a compulsive worrier, over-thinking things made me more stressed and I found myself scratching without thinking about it. In my mind, if I am scratching, it provided a quick sense of relief. So when you try to juggle that with assignments, hormones, and limited finances, it plays havoc on your mind. Needless to say, the whole situation pissed me off, which just stressed me out even more – causing an endless of cycle of stress and scratching. Even the weather was annoying as between cold breezes and unexpected heatwaves, my skin was unpredictable.

Like a grown-up, I just had to learn to deal with it.

It has been difficult to talk about my condition as I knew no-one outside of my family who were suffering from it past their teens. There have been times I have felt like a freak and I fall into small bouts of distress. It sometimes felt good to burst into tears out of sheer frustration but what good does it do? My eczema and allergies will still be there, no matter how much I wish for them to disappear.

There are occasional, short periods of relief when it has all cleared up, but in the end, lulls me into this false sense of security and before I know it, a rash will appear just as quickly and take twice as long to treat.

However, regardless of whether it was for a week or a month, it does go away. There is hope.

Ad – content continues below

Despite the numerous hospital visits, doctors’ appointments and countless steroid treatments, it has now gotten a point where I now understand what affects my skin. It is becoming easier to control it and know when to seek additional medical help, boosting my confidence

As the issue of allergens is becoming a major health issue, there is a growing awareness – and acceptance – of eczema. There are more topical treatments sold beyond the prescription counter; there are specialists in anti-allergy bedding and hypo-allergenic products; and more importantly, it is now easier to talk about it. After more than 30 years of suffering, I no longer see eczema as a hindrance – just an inconvenience.

So, what helps?

* Water. Lots of it. A clichéd piece of advice, but drinking two litres of water a day helps to hydrate the skin, clearing up any red or dry patches.

* See your doctor. If it is for a small patch of eczema or an ongoing condition, your doctor can become your biggest help. They can track what treatments do and don’t work, as well as shed light on a variant of eczema you may not have experienced before.

* Moisturise. Eczema sufferers ideally need to moisturise their skin regularly throughout the day to avoid skin drying out and eventually breaking, but stay clear of scented, ‘extra-dry skin’ lotions and creams as they can make things worse. Emollients such as Cetraben, Oilatum and E45 are designed for eczema-prone skin and available without a prescription.

Ad – content continues below

* Be aware. Sounds ominous, but knowing what affects your eczema can make it more manageable. This can be something simple as dusting your desk or avoiding cheese, to investing in anti-allergy products – small steps can make a big difference in the long-term.

* Don’t despair. It can be easy to crumble when your skin becomes unbearable, but this won’t make it go away. Talk about it to someone, go for a run, relax with a book – simply put your mind at ease. Worrying about it can trigger the scratch-itch cycle, so chill out.

Importantly, if you or someone you know suffers from eczema, there is no need to shy away from it: even though it looks unsightly, it shouldn’t affect a person’s self-confidence.  At the end of the day, you are still you.

More information on eczema can be found on the National Eczema Society page

Thanks, as always, for reading.