Eczema is an inflammation (swelling, soreness and redness) of the skin. There are two types, atopic and contact eczema. Contact eczema is a reaction to contact with a particular substance that's irritated the skin. Anyone can get it. Atopic eczema is often linked to asthma and hay fever and frequently runs in families. It affects 15-20 per cent of school students.
Things that set it off include food allergy (especially dairy products), stress, diet, and any illness. Things which make it worse include perfumed soaps and bubble baths, cold weather, and too much heating in bedrooms.
It can appear anywhere on the body, but is more common on the creases in front of the elbow and behind the knees. The skin becomes itchy, dry and flaky, and if infected it weeps and bleeds, becoming quite raw, sore, and sometimes blistered. It's difficult to sleep with severe eczema, and scratching during sleep makes the problem worse still.
Allergy tests are sometimes done to find out what is setting it off.
Your GP can prescribe emulsifying ointments, cleansing creams, and bath oils to clean the skin without drying it out. Barrier creams help give back the skin its natural protection, and steroid creams help reduce the itching and calm inflamed skin. Antibiotic creams help infected eczema (for bad infections you might need antibiotic to swallow) and antihistamine syrup helps with itching.
The good news is that atopic eczema very often goes away on its own - only 2-3 per cent of adults in the UK have it. While you're waiting, there's a lot you can do to get control of it, and not let it control you.