If you have atopic eczema, avoiding certain triggers and irritants may help to prevent flare-ups of symptoms.
What is eczema/dermatitis?
The terms eczema and dermatitis mean much the same. That is, an inflammation of the skin. It causes red, itchy skin which may also blister. There are two main types of dermatitis/eczema:
The rest of this leaflet is only about factors that may trigger or irritate atopic eczema
What are triggers and irritants?
In most people who have atopic eczema there is no apparent reason why the eczema may flare up from time to time. However, some flare-ups may be caused (triggered) or made worse by irritants to the skin, or other factors.
Soaps and detergents
Soaps and detergents remove the natural oils from the skin. This tends to make the skin dry and itchy and more sensitive to irritants.
Therefore, avoid soaps, bubble baths, etc, when you wash. Instead, use a thick emollient (moisturiser) as a soap substitute and add an emollient to the a bath or shower. (See separate leaflet called 'Emollients (Moisturisers) for Eczema' for details.) Wear rubber gloves with a cotton lining when using detergents or working with other similar chemicals.
After you wash clothes with detergent, rinse them well. Biological detergents are known trigger factors and fabric conditioners can make some people's eczema worse.
Toiletries and perfumes
Some people with eczema find that the perfumes, preservatives and alcohols in toiletries and make-up can be irritating. It may be best to avoid these, or only use bland products.
Wear cotton clothes next to the skin rather than irritating fabrics such as wool. However, it is probably the smoothness of the material rather than the type of the material which helps. Some smooth man-made fabrics are probably just as good as cotton.
Avoid getting too hot or too cold. Extremes of temperature and humidity may trigger a flare-up of eczema symptoms.
Stress, habitual scratching and the itch-scratch cycle
Stress does not cause eczema. However, some people react to stress by habit scratching. It is thought that scratching can make itch worse, which makes you want to scratch more, etc. This is called the itch-scratch cycle and can make eczema worse. Try as much as possible not to scratch the eczema. To help with this, keep fingernails cut short so that any scratching is not so sharp and severe. Consider wearing cotton gloves at night if you tend to scratch in your sleep and use anti-scratch mittens for babies. If you need to relieve an itch, rub with fingers rather than scratch with nails.
Some people find that relaxation exercises or similar techniques help to reduce stress. This may help to reduce habit scratching, which may help to reduce the severity of eczema.
Infection, often introduced by scratching, can aggravate eczema.
Food allergy and eczema
Less than 1 in 10 children with atopic eczema have a food allergy which can make symptoms worse. In general, it is young children with severe eczema who may have a food allergy as a trigger factor. The most common foods which trigger eczema symptoms in some people include: cows' milk, eggs, soya, wheat, fish and nuts.
How do I know if a food is making eczema worse?
If you suspect a food is making eczema symptoms worse, then see a doctor. You may be asked to keep a diary over 4-6 weeks. The diary aims to record any symptoms and all foods and drink taken. It may help to identify one or more suspect foods.
To confirm the diagnosis of a food allergy, you will need to see an allergy specialist. Leaving out certain foods without an allergy being confirmed is not usually recommended.
House dust mite
House dust mite is a tiny insect that occurs in every home. You cannot see it without a microscope. It mainly lives in bedrooms and mattresses as part of the dust.
Many people with eczema are allergic to house dust mite. However, in general, it is not usually advised to do anything about house dust mite. This is because:
A recent guideline from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) - referenced at the end of this leaflet - states: "There are conflicting data on the effectiveness of using house dust mite avoidance strategies in the management of childhood atopic eczema. Many of the currently suggested techniques are time-consuming and expensive for parents/carers and it is important to establish their value."
However, some people with severe eczema which is difficult to control with the usual treatments try to clear house dust mite from their home as much as possible. Therefore, for the sake of completeness, the following gives an idea of how to clear house dust mite. But it has to be stressed, it is hard work, it is not usually recommended and the value of this is not clear.
To greatly reduce the numbers of house dust mite:
Some parents report that symptoms in children become worse when they are in contact with pets. It is an allergy to animal dander which may be responsible. If you suspect a pet, it may be worth removing the pet to another home for a while to see if symptoms improve.
Other possible triggers
Other possible factors which may trigger symptoms, or make symptoms worse, include: pollens, moulds, pregnancy and hormonal changes before a period in women. However, these may not be avoidable. There may also be other factors which have not yet been identified which can trigger symptoms in people who have eczema.