If your skin is itchy, red, and/or inflamed following exposure to certain harmful substances, you may have developed eczema. Preventing eczema is simple if you’re aware of the substances and conditions that often cause it.
Eczema is the broad name for a skin condition that includes several different types of dermatitis. These types all have varying causes, but similar symptoms. Most of these forms of eczema are referred to as dermatitis, which is just a technical way to describe irritated, red, and inflamed patches of skin. The main symptoms of eczema are intensely itchy skin; a red, inflamed rash; skin dryness, stinging, and burning; and, less commonly, blisters and scaly skin.
There is one type of eczema that has no known cause, and as such, cannot be prevented. This condition is called atopic dermatitis and usually begins when a person is very young. Atopic dermatitis flare ups can occur randomly, but certain triggers can be avoided to prevent worse or frequent outbreaks.
The fortunate thing about eczema is that most other types have clear causes. There are things that you can learn to avoid without affecting your day-to-day life all that much.
Eczema can appear for a number of reasons, but it’s usually caused by an external irritant or allergen that most people know about. But there are lesser-known irritants and allergens out there that can be just as bothersome, and they can end up causing a preventable form of eczema called contact dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis is the most common type of eczema. Most people have experienced contact dermatitis at least once in their lives. Think back to the poison ivy, oak, and sumac your parents warned you about at summer camp, or the new soap that gave you a rash. These are both prime examples of contact dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis is caused by irritants and allergens, and there is a big difference between the two. Allergic contact dermatitis describes eczema caused by exposure to allergens ranging from the almost universal ones (poison ivy, sumac or oak, which all grow in the northeast) to the much less common (latex).
Contact with harmful substances called irritants affect most people in the same way. Household irritants like acids, bleach, pepper spray, certain foods, and even water can all cause irritant contact dermatitis.
Obviously, avoiding contact with acids, bleach, and pepper spray will all prevent them from affecting you. More challenging, however, is water. Constant contact with food or water can cause dyshidrotic eczema. The two areas usually affected by dyshidrotic eczema are the hands and feet. People who work with water frequently – beauticians, chefs, dishwashers, etc. – might develop this subtype of irritant contact dermatitis. Additionally, people who perform physical labor – construction, maintenance, etc. – and are exposed to substances like concrete or metals are more likely to develop dyshidrotic eczema. Wear gloves to protect your skin from being wet for too long, or dry your skin frequently. Wear protective clothing like work gloves, and avoid direct contact with cement or metal.
Most people are allergic to the plants we’ve discussed, but each person’s reaction will be different. Severe allergic contact dermatitis can be accompanied by anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening condition that causes your airways to constrict. If you or someone else experiences difficulty breathing, confusion, or swelling in the face and eyes, seek urgent medical care. To avoid poison ivy and other plants, wear long pants and long sleeves when walking in wooded areas or among any unknown vegetation. Stay on designated hiking or walking paths that are clear of plants. Keep an eye out for these plants via a helpful visual guides that explains what to look for.
Other allergens that cause allergic contact dermatitis include nickel (a metal common in jewelry), latex rubber, and makeup. Preventing allergic reactions from these substances is fairly straightforward. Avoid anything that caused you irritation in the past, and be aware of any new irritation. It’s possible that makeup or jewelry you’ve worn for years can suddenly cause an allergic reaction. Body chemistry changes with time, and we can develop allergies all throughout our lives.
Protection is key to prevention. Most of the types of eczema we’ve discussed can be totally mitigated by the right piece of clothing or a little bit of forethought. But if you’re stuck dealing with itchy, irritating eczema, contact your New England dermatologist to get to the root of your discomfort.