With almost 10-20 percent of the world’s population suffering with Eczema in some form and/or severity, the cause of eczema is still a subject of active research. Experts say it is a genetically inherited condition and worsens with exposure to external, internal or environmental factors.
Scientists from the University of Dundee discovered that the cause of eczema linked to a gene that causes dry, scaly skin and predisposes individuals to eczema. Further studies carried out at the University of Edinburgh concluded that defects in the filaggrin gene link to the risk of developing allergic disorders like as eczema, asthma and rhinitis. Another research has shown people with atopic eczema are missing specific proteins would aid the skin to protect itself from irritations and loss of moisture and this could be another cause of eczema. Further studies showed 60 percent of children presenting with eczema, have a parent with the same condition. Should both parents suffer the condition, then the risk of a child developing eczema increases to 80 percent.
Also noted in eczema sufferers is the reduced lipid (oily) layer of the skin when compared to other people. This lipid barrier aids prevents excessive loss of moisture. A reduced barrier means water is lost more rapidly and the skin becomes drier, exacerbating the itching brought on by eczema.
Cells from the immune system release chemicals under the skins surface. This sometimes causes inflammation to people suffering with eczema and experts have not been able to prove the reason behind this yet.
Eczema may flare up for no obvious reason but sufferers and those living with them will notice there are certain triggers start up an allergic response or worsen an existing one. The causes are many and each affects the sufferer differently.
Recently, studies show environmental factors caused a spike in the number of eczema sufferers in the developing world.
Some of the known eczema causes include:
- Excessive stress
- No answers have been found as to the reason excessive mental stress causes the worsening of eczema symptoms but the cycle it creates is vicious. A patient experiencing heavy stress is further stressed by the symptoms of the eczema that in turn exacerbates the symptoms, etc.
- Skin that dries easily
- Changes in weather and temperature
- Patients living away from the equator find that their symptoms worsen in winter although pollen is an important trigger of eczema.
- Frequent washing of hands or prolonged bathing
- Hard water
- A study is being carried out by scientists at the University of Portsmouth, England to find out if installing a water softener in the homes of children affected by eczema will improve their symptoms.
- Chemicals, e.g. shampoos, soaps, detergents
- Rough clothing fabrics, e.g. wool
- Irritants such as pollen, mould, pet dander or house dust mites
- According to a study carried out at the University of Arizona, USA, it was found that children exposed to cats soon after birth may have an increased risk of developing eczema. The same allergens are known to trigger asthma and hay fever too.
- Bacteria, Staphylococci
- Changes in hormone levels, e.g. during pregnancy or menstrual cycle
- Women sufferers have reported that their symptoms worsen during their menstrual cycle, whilst some noted that their symptoms got worse during pregnancy.
- Foods such as soya, cow’s milk, eggs, wheat or nuts may cause eczema to flare up
- Foods rarely affect adults with eczema; however, about 10% of children are affected by food allergens.
To confirm that a patient is presenting with eczema, doctors look for the following diagnostic criteria:
- Patients have dry and/or itchy skin for a period of 12 months or more. Most sufferers find that the itching is worse at night.
- Eczema is normally present in the areas of the body that flex, irritation and itching in the skin creases behind the knees, in the front of the elbows, behind the neck, wrists, ankles or around the eyes. Babies seem to present with symptoms to the face.
- A history of asthma or hay fever or if any immediate family members (mother, father, brother, sister) who may have the conditions.
Most noticeable and common eczema symptoms especially for those with chronic eczema are:
- Skin that has broken, cracked or become raw in places from the constant scratching.
- Skin is dry, red and inflamed.
- The inflamed areas have developed blisters and weep or ooze liquid.
- There are small, raised bumps on areas of the skin and/or red to brownish-grey colored patches present.
When a flare occurs, all the symptoms above exist but others appear as well:
- The skin becomes drier and thus, more itchy.
- The affected areas start to feel hot, increasing the itchiness.
- The skin becomes scaly and drier, with any raised bumps becoming more pronounced and ooze liquid.
- Blisters form and may weep when scratched.
- The thickening or tough layer forms over the skin in acute cases and is known as Lichenification.
- Infection can set in causing other conditions.
Flare-ups can last from a single day or up to several weeks.
Scientists and other expert are almost certain that the primary cause of eczema is genetic but the exact genetic cause is yet to be discovered. Ongoing studies are shedding light but a great deal more research is required.