ASK THE GP: How bathing in bleach may ease dry, cracked skin. DR MARTIN SCURR answers your health questions
My granddaughter has quite severe eczema on her face and body. She’s 26 and has always used prescribed steroid creams, which improve it for a short period only. She cannot stop itching and is not sleeping well, and I fear it’s getting her down. Is there anything else that could help?
Eczema is clinically known as atopic dermatitis and is characterised by dry, itchy, reddened areas of skin.
Your granddaughter is unlucky, as although most people who have this condition develop symptoms as children, it usually abates in adulthood (thought to be due to age-related changes in the immune system).
There is a widely held belief that eczema is often down to a food allergy. But there may be a number of factors involved.
Eczema is clinically known as atopic dermatitis and is characterised by dry, itchy, reddened areas of skin
People with eczema have a less stable epidermis — the outermost layer of skin, our first line of defence against allergens, bacteria, viruses and irritants. This makes it prone to inflammation and dryness.
On top of that, those with eczema (it’s typically an inherited condition) often have allergies, too. That’s why exposure to chemicals, including soaps, cosmetics, perfumes, wool, dust and tobacco smoke, may worsen the condition. But so can cold and dry conditions, emotional distress and even sweating.
Unfortunately, as you will know, there is no ‘cure’.
It’s important first to eliminate any exacerbating factors such as low humidity environments that strip moisture from the skin, stress, anxiety and contact with solvents, soaps and detergents.
Regular use of an emollient — a medical moisturiser — is also vital. Apply at least twice daily, and after every shower. This must be a lifelong strategy for your granddaughter. No prescription is needed for such creams, examples of which include Eucerin, Doublebase and Cetaphil daily lotion.
There is a widely held belief that eczema is often down to a food allergy. But there may be a number of factors involved
Research shows that emollients containing glycyrrhetinic acid, derived from liquorice root, have anti-inflammatory actions, which will help with the redness (for instance, Atopiclair, available over the counter).
Suppressing the inflammatory response is essential — this is what the steroid creams you mention are for, and even the mildest are more powerful than glycyrrhetinic acid. But they can cause permanent thinning of the skin, so should be used only intermittently for acute flare-ups.
The face and skin folds are the areas most likely to be damaged by thinning, so strong steroids must be avoided at these sites. There are newer, non-steroid preparations which dampen the inflammatory response in the skin but without the thinning effect. These are known as calcineurin inhibitors but are only available on prescription. Tacrolimus is an example.
Bleach baths (half a cup of non-perfumed bleach in a full bath of warm water) may reduce symptoms by killing off bacteria. It could be worth trying this a few times a week for four weeks. Stock picture
However, these drugs do not act as rapidly as steroids, long-term use must be limited and your doctor’s advice followed.
I can offer two more suggestions. The first is referral for ultraviolet light therapy. Courses of this three times weekly have been proven to give relief.
Secondly, staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium frequently found on the skin of people with chronic eczema, appears to drive its severity to some extent.
Bleach baths (half a cup of non-perfumed bleach in a full bath of warm water) may reduce symptoms by killing off bacteria. It could be worth trying this a few times a week for four weeks.
IN MY VIEW: Acupuncture can prevent migraines, too
Acupuncture is sometimes recommended for pain, but having looked at emerging evidence I think those who have regular migraines could also do well to consider using it.
By ‘regular’ I mean anyone who is having four or more migraines a month and who is using preventative (prophylactic) treatment.
The danger is medication dependency, and falling into the vicious circle of the medication itself causing a withdrawal headache as the drug wears off.
A meta-analysis (combining the findings of a number of research studies) recently published in the Journal of Neurology suggests acupuncture is superior to drug treatment. The drug treatment in these studies was beta-blockers — one of the standard preventatives.
Acupuncture involves inserting very fine needles, in this case into the face and head, during treatments. They are thought to reduce pain by releasing endorphins or affecting nerve pathways.
If you have frequent migraines, consider acupuncture — even if only in addition to any current preventative medication. It may not always be available on the NHS, so ensure you choose an acupuncturist who is a trained and ethical practitioner, prepared to read the research.
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