Sub-editor of our Exchange magazine and lifelong eczema sufferer, Annie Brand, describes her ongoing battle with the dreaded itch.
For the first 9 months of my life nobody would have known from looking at me that lying dormant inside, entwined in my DNA, was a lifetime of itching, scratching and flaking. Almost overnight though everything changed.
My previously perfect skin became suddenly and dramatically dry with eczema firmly embedded in my flexures. My father had always had extremely dry skin and it’s clear to see where I inherited the foundations of my condition. However, it was on my mother’s side of the family that eczema crept in as one of my cousins also suffers from the dreaded itch.
At that time, eczema treatment was relatively limited and my mother was told to wash me in liquid paraffin, rather than water, and to bandage my arms in splints so I couldn’t scratch. This latter strategy clearly didn’t take into account just how intense the urge to scratch is and the desperate measures you will take to alleviate the itch – by morning I’d always have managed to free myself and was to be found happily tearing at my skin.
As time went on my parents discovered I also had asthma. Although mild now, back then it was quite debilitating. Like many children though I found that when the asthma was at its worst the eczema wasn’t quite so bad and vice versa. I also developed mild hay fever as I grew older, underlining once again my atopic genes.
My first real memory of having eczema is from infant school. My arms were completely infected and covered in pustules as I’d been clawing at my skin. A liberal coating of coal tar ointment – which I adored as it was so soothing – was topped with bandages but these then stuck to my arms over the course of the day because of the infection.
I can clearly remember sitting with an arm in a bowl of water when I got home from school, to soak the bandages off so that fresh ointment and bandages could be applied.
While my teachers were always supportive, the other children found it strange that there was a child in their class who scratched such an awful lot and probably decided I either had nits or fleas! They never wanted to hold my hand but, equally, I didn’t want to hold theirs as I was so self conscious.
Mum had also bought me what she felt was the best possible school uniform blouse for my eczema but – while it might have been made from the softest cotton – it was cream, not white like everyone else’s, and it made me stand out even more.
I was fortunate in that both my eczema and asthma decided to take a back seat during my teens and early adulthood and I experienced a period of virtual remission. However, my eczema deteriorated again at the start of my 20s and my GP referred me to a dermatologist in Birmingham. Although she agreed my skin was very dry, all she was willing to suggest was a cosmetic hand cream and – to add insult to injury – it contained perfume!
Shortly afterwards I moved to London having got married and, due to the stress of relocation and the change in lifestyle, my eczema got a lot worse. I was referred by my new GP to the outpatient department of St John’s where I was given high-strength steroid ointments for the first time. Sadly, such treatments were still relatively new and the potential side effects not fully known, which meant I ended up with stretch marks on my legs from their application.
Worse still, my new husband had also infected me with the cold sore virus! My entire face broke out in blisters and was red and inflamed but I had no idea at that stage that it was eczema herpeticum, or the seriousness of my condition.
After making no progress with my GP I went directly to St John’s outpatients, where the doctor took one look at my face and admitted me there and then for 6 long weeks.
At this stage I’d accepted that my eczema would always be an underlying problem and had learnt to adapt, although I often wished that I could shed all my dry skin in one go – like a snake – rather than flake by flake!
I always used emulsifying ointment to moisturise my skin as it contained no preservatives and I would choose my clothes carefully to minimise how much of my eczema was on display. I even remember having to get permission from my civil service employer to wear trousers to work, as they weren’t considered to be suitable female attire!
Two years after I’d first been admitted to hospital I found myself back there again after my eczema spiralled out of control once more. As a result, I was put on oral steroids for 2½ years, which helped my skin to fully heal for the first time although I did put on a lot of weight as a result.
Shortly afterwards I separated from my first husband and met Colin, who I later married. We moved to the USA for a year and my eczema remained tolerable although it was always present to some degree.
On our return to the UK, I discovered the National Eczema Society and having access to a wide range of information – unavailable on the NHS – about treatments, practical advice and ways to alleviate the itch was wonderful.
When I fell pregnant with my daughter Laura I was extremely worried that she would inherit the condition, a fear that was exacerbated when I developed a rash all over my body as a result of the hormonal changes.
When she was born, it was widely believed that eczema was caused by cow’s milk and I remember adamantly telling the nurses on the maternity ward that she could only be given soya milk. She didn’t have any cow’s milk until she was over a year old. Thankfully, Laura shows no sign of either the overtly dry skin or the eczema that run in our family. She does however have hay fever.
For the first few years of Laura’s life, my eczema was reasonably under control, but when she was a toddler I went to see a Clinical Immunologist as I’d often suspected my symptoms were diet related. I was immediately put on an exclusion diet that consisted of lamb, pears and water.
I had to do this for a month in total and then was told to gradually introduce new foods. Although the initial diet appeared to clear my eczema, the process of introducing new foods was complex and it was frustrating having to prepare one meal for me, one for Colin and one for Laura every night, so in the end I gave up.
Until recent years I continued with the same treatment regimen, liberally applying creams and avoiding key triggers, until last year when, during a particularly stressful period of my life, the eczema came back with a vengeance. Suddenly it was all over my back, on my chest and also my face. I was referred to a dermatologist who suggested a high-strength steroid ointment, which helped the eczema on my body, plus different emollients and products containing antimicrobials.
I’d started a new diet prior to the outbreak as Laura was due to get married, and it occurred to me that the diet food may be the culprit, so recently I went for patch testing.
Beforehand I wrote out an extensive list of every single ingredient in all the products I currently use so that I could be tested for sensitivity to them. In the end, I was tested for over 100 different allergens, all of which came back negative! However, a separate blood test showed a sensitivity to certain foods, including cereals, nuts and tomatoes.
I was also prescribed Protopic ointment® for use on my face and decided that I would see what effect this had before altering my diet. I am very glad I did as it has had a miraculous effect on my skin. Whereas before it was red, sore, itchy and very dry – so dry it acted like blotting paper when I applied my emollients and simply soaked them all up! – it’s like being given completely new skin. In fact, I’m amazed at how quickly I saw results.
I will try cutting down on the foods that I’ve tested positively for in the future as I still have eczema on my back and legs and from time to time on my chest. But I’m delighted with the improvement I’ve seen to date and am glad that there is now such a wide range of treatments available for those with eczema compared to when I was first diagnosed with the condition.
I continued with the same treatment regimen, liberally applying creams and avoiding key triggers, until last year when the eczema came back with a vengeance.