When you suffer from eczema, when you suddenly suffer from it in your mid-50s, you encounter a bewildering number of possible causes and cures. Some people, I note, seem to just live with it. My own mother always seemed to have a tube of Betnovate on the go.
But I’ve always been convinced that my own sudden onset eczema has an external cause, such as a food allergy or intolerance. Maybe it’s pollen. Maybe it’s stress (which is still an external cause). Maybe it’s a side effect of medication (most of the ones I take list “rash” as one of the possible side effects). Or maybe it’s gluten, or dairy, or bio washing powder, or simply heat or pressure from sitting or wearing elastic or a belt. Anyway, tracking down an actual cause seems nearly impossible. You’d be here to the end of time, trying to establish one using the scientific method.
Which brings us to the treatments. What you mainly want to do is stop the itch-scratch cycle. The guilty secret of scratching is that it brings a pleasurable relief. And if you scratch till it hurts, your spine releases serotonin, which brings relief, but also stokes the itch-scratch cycle. Strong steroid creams (on prescription) offer relief for several hours at a time (though sometimes take too long to work) and can clear up an eczema patch after two or three days, but in my case, the eczema just moves elsewhere. Most of my time is spent chasing it around my body.
But strong steroid creams are bad, and should only be used for a day or two. Chasing the eczema around means I’m not constantly putting the cream on the same spots, but I still don’t like to use it. Taking antihistamine pills seems to work, too, though they do seem to stop working for me after a few days. I’ve been taking Piriteze: two tablets, staggered over a few hours in the evening, can give me an itch-free night. But such a dose does leave me feeling a bit zonked. One tablet isn’t enough.
Looking for alternatives, you will come across many a web site making extravagant claims for various creams. I’ve tried a lot.
First, and most basic, is Dermol, which you can use as a moisturiser and as a replacement for shower gel. I get this in 500ml bottles on prescription. Used regularly, it can offer relief for a few hours: enough to get you to sleep, perhaps, though nothing stops you from waking up in the middle of the night itching like crazy. Dermol is good for spreading the steroid more thinly, and it absorbs well and is non-sticky.
Something similar is Cetaphil, which I think some people get instead of Dermol. I tried Cetaphil in mousse form, but felt it left my skin feeling slightly tacky.
Bog standard moisturisers like Vaseline Intensive Care can be used, and I’ve tried a Vaseline lotion with added Aloe Vera (and a Garnier equivalent). They’re okay, though no more effective than Dermol. The most pleasant moisturiser to use is Aveeno, especially the one with almond oil. Problem with Aveeno and the other commercial brands, they have too many SKUs, and almost nobody stocks them all. I also tried their after shower mist, which was okay, but didn’t seem to last very long.
But nothing is quite so effective at providing a protective barrier for your skin as actual Vaseline petroleum jelly. Which is nasty and greasy, but lasts a long while and promotes healing.
When itching is at its height, aloe vera gel can be very useful in cooling the skin and relieving the immediate itching sensation. If you then apply another moisturiser on top, you might get relief from itching for a few hours.
I’ve also tried coconut oil, the only real benefit of which seems to be its pleasant smell, if you like that kind of thing. Doesn’t work particularly well as a moisturiser, however, and doesn’t help the eczema.
Finally, I’ve also tried cannabis-based cream, such as Atopicann, which contains hemp oil as well as coconut oil and zinc. No THC, though. It smells a bit like the Mytosil ointment we used to use for nappy rash: not very pleasant.
At the moment, the combination of antihistamine tablets, aloe vera gel and Atopicann seems to be working to keep the itching at bay. And who knows, maybe giving up gluten and dairy is helping too. But probably not.