Eczema is not just for kids. If you've been suffering for years with no let up, consider these promising alternative remedies
Atopic dermatitis-better known as eczema-is often thought of as a childhood condition. But the symptoms of red, scaly skin and intense itching can persist well into the adult years and even last a lifetime.
According to a new US study-the largest on eczema to date-children with eczema don't necessarily outgrow the disease, as is commonly believed. After tracking more than 7,000 sufferers enrolled in the Pediatric Eczema Elective Registry (PEER) study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia discovered that, at every age (from two to 26 years), more than 80 per cent of study participants either had eczema symptoms or were using medication to treat the condition.
Even at age 20, only half the patients had enjoyed at least one six-month period free of symptoms and treatment.
The rather bleak conclusion drawn by the researchers is that atopic dermatitis is "probably a life-long illness" and that symptoms in children can persist well into the second decade of life and most likely longer.1
Part of the problem could be that the usual treatments for eczema fail to go more than skin deep. The many creams, ointments and oral medications available to sufferers work to relieve symptoms rather than get to the root cause of the condition, and some of them come with a range of side-effects every bit as bad as the eczema itself.
Steroid-based creams, for example, can cause irritation, discoloration and thinning of the skin if used long-term, while topical immunomodulators tacrolimus and pimecrolimus-newer options for treating eczema-have both been linked to skin cancer.2
The good news is there are plenty of drug-free ways to tackle eczema. The best first step is to try and work out what's causing the eczema in the first place, or what's making it worse-and then try to address it. This will require a lot of patience and detective work, as there are many possible triggers (see box, opposite page).
In the meantime, here's a roundup of the top alternative solutions for eczema you can start with straight away.
Famous for their anti-inflammatory effects, these essential fatty acids-found naturally in fish oil-are showing promise as a treatment for eczema. In one study, adults taking 5.4 g/day of the omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) saw significant improvement in their eczema after just two months compared with the control group.3 Another study reported similar effects when sufferers took supplements containing 1.8 g/day of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), another omega-3.4 It's thought the fatty acids work by reducing certain inflammatory substances that play a role in eczema.
Suggested dose: 2-6 g/day EPA and DHA (Bare Biology's Lion Heart fish oil provides over 3 g of EPA and DHA in a single tablespoon; lb47.50 fromwww.barebiology.com)
People with chronic eczema seem to be low in zinc, so taking supplements may be worth a try. One study found that children with eczema had lower hair zinc levels than those without the condition and that supplements improved symptoms after two months.7
Suggested dose: 15 mg zinc citrate three times daily for a month, then twice daily for a month and, finally, once a day
Vitamin B12 cream
Applying this vitamin directly to the skin appears to reduce the severity of eczema in sufferers of all ages.8 One brand of B12 cream available in the UK is Life-Flo (www.victoriahealth.com; lb20); it's free of perfumes, petrochemicals, parabens and other harsh ingredients, and packed with hydrating and soothing botanicals like aloe vera gel and avocado oil.
Suggested dose: Apply twice a day for at least eight weeks
Several studies have found these beneficial bacteria helpful for eczema, especially in children. In adults, a combination of two probiotics-Lactobacillus salivarius LS01 and Bifidobacterium breve BR03-was recently found to improve symptoms of atopic dermatitis better than a placebo.5 There is even evidence to suggest that taking probiotics might prevent eczema from developing in the first place.6
Suggested dose: Aim for a daily supplement containing 10-20 billion colony-forming units (CFUs)
Herbal creams can help and are sometimes every bit as good as the standard drugs. A 10 per cent ointment made from a 95 per cent ethanol extract of Lupinus termis (a type of lupin) seeds can produce results comparable to those of topical steroids,9 while liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), chamomile, witch hazel and St John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) creams or gels can also improve symptoms.10
Visit the National Institutes of Medical Herbalists' website (www.nimh.org.uk), or call 01392 426 022 to find a qualified herbalist near you
Increasingly used to treat skin conditions, hypnosis may be effective for eczema, especially when conventional therapies have failed. In one trial, 19 out of 20 children saw an immediate improvement, while more than half reported less itching and scratching after 18 months. Hypnosis also appears to work in adults, with benefits lasting for up to two years in one study.12
Visit www.thehypnotherapyassociation.co.uk to find a hypnotherapist in your area, or call the association on 01257 262 124
Japanese researchers found that oolong tea-a partially fermented tea with a milder flavour than the black variety-can help relieve eczema symptoms. When sufferers drank three cups of oolong every day for a month, two-thirds of them showed improvement in symptoms-some after as little as a week. And around half the group was still benefitting from the tea's healing effects some six months later.11
Suggested dose: One cup three times a day after meals
This method of feeding back objective physiological information to the patient on how the body is responding was combined with relaxation therapy to treat five adults with eczema. Two months later, all showed clinical improvement and, two years later, three were completely cured.13
Visit www.naturaltherapypages.co.uk to find a biofeedback practitioner near you
Find your trigger
A multitude of things can cause eczema or make it worse, and they vary from person to person. The following are among the most common culprits.
oPsychological factors like stress and anxiety
o Irritants in the home or at work, like dust mites, animal dander and certain plants
o Food, especially eggs, peanuts, milk, fish, soy and wheat
o Food additives like preservatives and colourings
o Drugs such as antivirals, antihistamines, steroids, anaesthetics and anticancer drugs
oChemical irritants like detergents (used in shampoos, body washes and bubble-baths containing sodium lauryl sulphate), biological washing powders and chlorine in swimming pools
o Central heating and woollen or synthetic clothes, which can cause overheating and exacerbate itching
o Hard water in the home, as the high mineral content can make eczema worse.
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