Eczema… it’s itchy. It’s painful.

While it may be one of the most irritating skin conditions, it’s extremely common within the United States and across the world. Eczema affects around 10 percent of Americans, that’s about 31 million people. As is common with any health condition that results in discomfort, pain, or physical disfigurement, the negative effects of eczema symptoms go much deeper. Many people with eczema suffer psychologically and as many as “two-thirds of people with eczema say that their disease interferes with their job and household chores.”

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Let’s take a deeper dive into this skin condition in order to understand its symptoms, causes, and potential treatments!

What is Eczema?

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When people refer to eczema they are actually referring to a “group of conditions that cause the skin to become red, itchy and inflamed.” In fact, eczema is a Greek-derived word meaning “to boil over,” which, unfortunately, is a pretty accurate representation of the condition. Eczema is an inflammatory condition meaning that your immune system is overreacting. Generally, the immune system fights off and protects the human body from infection, yet, sometimes, the immune system is activated when it’s not needed. This causes increased bodily inflammation and, for some, eczema. Even though eczema is most common in babies and children — most commonly forming on their face — adults are just as susceptible, even if they never experienced the condition before.

In order to properly treat eczema, it’s important to identify what form you suffer from including “atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and stasis dermatitis.” Depending on the type and severity, the rash ranges from moderate to severe.

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There are ongoing studies regarding eczema, yet doctors and scientists still don’t know exactly why some people have the condition while others don’t. With that said, current findings have discovered a higher rate of eczema in people with a family history of the condition, those that suffer from asthma or allergies, and even geography plays a role with more cases presenting in “cities, polluted areas and in the northern part of the world.”

How Does Eczema Present?

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Eczema presents in various ways depending on the type, the person, and the level of treatment and care. With that said, there are a few symptoms that most all eczema sufferers experience at one point or another including dry, sensitive, red, and inflamed skin, bad itching, dark colored, rough, leathery, or scaly patches of skin, oozing and/or crusting, as well as swollen areas. Be aware that some people may experience all symptoms, while others may only experience one or two. Also, keep in mind that the more you scratch at an eczema rash, the worse it gets, and the more symptoms may begin presenting due to the constant irritation and inflammation. This is referred to as the “itch-scratch cycle” and it can devolve a moderate flare-up into a severe one.

Understanding Atopic Dermatitis

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While there is a long list of eczema conditions, the most common is atopic dermatitis (AD). Of the 30 million Americans suffering from eczema, more than “18 million American adults have atopic dermatitis — which often appears as a red, itchy rash normally on the cheeks, arms and legs.” Atopic dermatitis is one of the most severe and long-lasting forms of eczema, generally forming during the “first six months of a baby’s life.” It’s important to note that atopic dermatitis is more likely to develop in people who suffer from two very specific allergic conditions: hay fever and asthma.

Once again, the medical world is not sure why some people develop atopic dermatitis. With that said, there are some links that can be formed.

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Oftentimes, people who suffer from atopic dermatitis “have a mutation of the gene responsible for creating filaggrin,” which is “a protein that helps our bodies maintain a healthy, protective barrier on the very top layer of the skin.” If you don’t have enough filaggrin or it’s not working appropriately, “moisture can escape and bacteria, viruses and more can enter.” Researchers have also found a connection in family history, as a child of a parent who suffered from atopic dermatitis, asthma, or hay fever as a 50 percent higher chance of also having the condition.

Atopic dermatitis presents very similarly to other eczema conditions with a couple of symptoms that stand out. Keep an eye out for cracking behind the ears, a general rash on your cheeks, arms, and legs, or “open, crusted, or ‘weepy’ sores” during flare-ups. These may be signs that you have the more severe atopic dermatitis and should seek medical attention for proper treatment and care.

Knowing the Triggers of Eczema  

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Even though the scientific community may not know why people suffer from eczema, there are a handful of distinct triggers that have been found to cause flare-ups or worsen the condition. If you have eczema, it’s important to consult a dermatologist to help you deduce what your triggers may be, as they are different for everyone. With that said, here are some of the most common.

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Dry Skin

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Even for those that don’t suffer from eczema, when your skin is dry, it increases itchiness, discomfort, can cause flakiness and scaly textures, and eventually may lead to a puffy rash from scratching. Therefore, if you suffer from eczema, dry skin simply aggravates symptoms that may already be present or may even induce a flare-up.

Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!

Using appropriate moisturizers “helps protect the outermost layer of skin known as the stratum corneum or skin barrier.” Eczema causes damage to this essential skin barrier making sufferers skin “more sensitive to irritants, allergens, bacteria and other invaders,” as well as making “it harder for the skin to retain water, leading to chronic dry, itchy skin.” All of this is to say that eczema is worsened when the skin is not properly moisturized.

Household Cleaners, Cosmetics, and Disinfectants

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For some, simply doing the dishes, washing your hair, or doing the laundry may be inducing a flare-up.

Many common household cleaners have chemical agents that are also skin irritants such as formaldehyde — found in “household disinfectants, some vaccines, glues, and adhesives” — isothiazolinones — an “antibacterial that is found in personal care products” — Cocamidopropyl betaine — “used to thicken shampoos and lotions — and paraphenylenediamine — “used in leather dyes and temporary tattoos, among other” things.

That quick spray of perfume or cologne in the morning? Yep, that may also be causing a flare up due to the chemical fragrance.

Allergens

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Allergen irritants are some of the hardest to identify and even more difficult to avoid. These can include “everyday materials in the environment” such as “seasonal pollen, dust mites, pet dander from cats and dogs, [and] mold and dandruff.” With that said, if you know you have an allergy to one of these environmental stimulants, then it’s probably safe to say it may also be causing eczema flare-ups. Oftentimes, allergen irritants can cause symptoms to last longer or return more frequently, therefore it’s even more important to take the time and pinpoint them.

Stress

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Have you ever noticed how dormant medical conditions seem to grow worse during periods of great stress? Well, this is also true for eczema. In particular, emotional stress is “considered an eczema trigger, but [the medical community is] not exactly sure why.” Sometimes it’s outside stressors that cause a flare up, while others become stressed due to a flare-up, which then grows worse as the stress worsens. This is why it’s so important to seek medical help and reduce the stress with proper skin treatment.

Other Irritants

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There’s also a host of seemingly peculiar and hard to identify irritants such as certain metals — nickel, in particular — certain fabrics — such as wool and polyester — natural juices — from fresh fruit, veggies, and meat — sweating, hormones, and even cigarette smoke!

On top of that, be very aware of antibacterial ointments and salves. In particular, neomycin and bacitracin, both antibacterial ointments, have been shown to cause flare-ups. Another hard to avoid, yet important to note irritant is climate. Eczema can be aggravated when the “air is too dry or too humid,” so if you decide to go on vacation or move to a new climate take note and plan accordingly.

The Relationship Between Food and Eczema

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Along with environmental, household, and emotional irritants, another common allergen that causes eczema flare-ups is diet. First off, the good news. Research has not found any connection between diet causing eczema in the first place. With that out of the way, here’s the bad news. While eating “certain foods doesn’t appear to cause eczema,” eating the wrong thing may “trigger a flare-up if you already have a condition.”

This is where eczema-friendly foods are essential for managing symptoms.

If you have the ability to take a food allergy test, that’s a great place to start. This test will identify foods that you will have an allergic reaction to. On top of that, it may be beneficial to also take a food sensitivity test. This test will identify foods that you may not be allergic to, yet these foods may cause increased inflammation due to sensitivity. Given that eczema is an inflammatory response, reducing inflammation in the body is a great step towards relief.

Some of the most common food allergies include nuts, gluten, soy, eggs, shellfish, fish, and cow’s milk. Yet, anyone can be allergic or sensitive to any food. This is why working with your healthcare provider is incredibly important. The sooner you identify an allergy or sensitivity, the sooner you can avoid that food, and the more effective your overall treatment can be.

Plant-Based Foods to Relieve Eczema Symptoms

Super-Easy Refrigerator Dill Pickles/One Green Planet

Since eczema is technically an allergic reaction, it’s important to understand that there’s not a cure-all diet. With that said, there are foods that have been shown to aggravate breakouts (mentioned above) and others that have been shown to relieve symptoms. Here are a couple of the most trusted plant-based foods to relieve eczema symptoms.

Kale and Spinach

Spinach Salad with Pistachios and Sun-Dried Tomatoes/One Green Planet

It’s really no surprise that these superfoods are topping the list! When it comes to eczema, kale and spinach offer quercetin which is “a plant-based flavonoid.” Not only does quercetin give these veggies their coloring, but “it’s also a powerful antioxidant and antihistamine,” which means “it can reduce inflammation as well as levels of histamine in your body.”

Plus, kale and spinach are versatile ingredients that can be consumed in a variety of ways. Kale is a bit heartier, therefore try cooking it in this soothing and gut boosting Mushroom and Miso Soup or this hearty and festive kale Stuffed Pumpkin. Spinach is softer and therefore it’s better raw in salads, such as this Spinach Salad with Pistachios and Sun-Dried Tomatoes, or broken down in smoothies, such as this Beginner Green Smoothie.

Apples and Blueberries

Cinnamon Baked Apples/One Green Planet

If greens aren’t necessarily your jam, quercetin can also be found in some tasty fruits, in particular, apples and blueberries. Fruit is an essential part of any balanced diet, yet keep in mind that fruit also has sugar and sugar is known to cause inflammation in the body. Therefore, consume your fruits wisely and in appropriate quantities! With that said, integrating a few apples and a smattering of blueberries throughout the week may help reduce your eczema symptoms. While you can consume these separately — such as in this Quinoa and Blueberry Spiced Bircher or these Cinnamon Baked Apples — you can also go for a quercetin-packed punch duo, such as this Blueberry Apple Pie Cake!

Miso, Pickles, Tempeh, and Unpasteurized Sauerkraut

Homemade Sauerkraut/One Green Planet

Do you see a pattern in these foods? Once again, we return to fermentation! Yet, for this cause, we’re seeking healthy probiotics. Probiotics are found within many fermented foods and are known to boost the health and efficacy of your immune system, as well as your gut, which may help reduce eczema flare-ups and symptoms. The best thing about fermented foods is that they are easy to make at home, as well as purchase online.

Try out these DIY home recipes: Super-Easy Refrigerator Dill Pickles, Homemade Sauerkraut, this tasty Tempeh Picatta, or this simple easy Miso Noodle Soup. You can also purchase fermented foods online, such as this Organic, Raw, Fermented Classic Sauerkraut, this Organic Soy LightLife Tempeh, or this Hikari Organic White Miso Paste.

Reduce your eczema flare-ups and symptoms with some antioxidant-rich plant-based foods! We highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

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