Ian Greaves shares his own story of living with eczema, keeping a positive mental attitude and the search for the ‘magic eczema bullet.’
I’ve always felt that there was a lack of articles in Exchange by male sufferers of the condition. Men aren’t as we all know, great at discussing health issues so I hope that my fellow readers will not only find this article interesting, but also be inspired to share their own story. My brother and I are a classic example. We both have eczema and yet we rarely discuss it in any detail.
I’ve had atopic eczema for a large proportion of my life. When I was very young I also had severe asthma and was placed on a low dose of oral steroids for about 4 years. These successfully controlled both my asthma and my skin for some time. Then, in my late teens, I caught glandular fever and as a result, my eczema returned with a vengeance and I’ve had very few periods since then when my skin has been clear.
Eczema affects most parts of my body but some places are much worse than others - namely, the easiest to reach ones! Generally, I try not to let my eczema stop me from doing anything, although I swim less than I used to because it makes my skin so very dry. Like a lot of eczema patients I also have a number of allergies, the most difficult of which to live with is allergic eye disease, which causes my eyes to itch and water.
For a long time I was under the care of Dr Foulds and his excellent team at the Skin Hospital in Birmingham. During that time, I experienced a number of in-patient stays, both there and on the skin ward of the City Hospital.
I always found hospital stays quite humbling, having seen some of the other patients’ skin conditions. I frequently felt that my eczema was nowhere near as bad as theirs and - whereas mine seemed to respond quite well to the intensive treatment received in a hospital environment - and other patients would end up being in hospital for several weeks at a time.
There was always a very good rapport between all the patients. Whether that was because we all shared common ground in eczema I don’t know, but the time I spent on skin wards certainly showed that, however bad you think your skin is, there is always someone worse off than you.
Dr Foulds encouraged me to try as many different treatments as possible in order to find the magic eczema bullet that would free me from the condition - so try them I did! I’ve used more creams and ointments than you can shake a stick at, soap substitutes, bath additives, antihistamines and oral steroids - including an 18 month course of ciclosporin - but nothing has taken my eczema fully in hand.
I’ve used wet wraps a lot - and still do sometimes - and worn gloves at night to try to prevent myself from scratching. I even went through a phase of recording every time I scratched and what I was doing at the time, in order to become more aware of my scratching habits and try to break them. The figures were scary!
All of these treatments have had various degrees of success but at least I can say that I’ve tried everything there is to try!
In my lifetime there have not been any radical changes in the treatment of atopic eczema. A few new topical treatments have surfaced that have promised much but delivered little to me, although I know some patients have found some of the new treatments to be very beneficial.
Protopic is a good example of this. Viewed by some healthcare professionals as a breakthrough treatment, I found only very limited benefit from the ointment but have read about other patients for whom it has been almost life-changing.
My greatest discovery in treatment my eczema is Doublebase cream. It is a fantastic emollient and has been key in helping me to reduce my steroid usage as it absorbs so easily and doesn’t constantly ruin my clothes so I can use it as often as I need.
As with a lot of eczema sufferers, winter is not a good time for my skin. Modern central heating generates a very dry heat, which in turn dries my skin out and that - coupled with the change in temperature when going in and out of the house - leaves my skin unable to cope.
I tend to measure the state of my skin in stages:
Normally referred to as ‘ok’, probably about as good as it gets.
Commonly described as ‘could be better’ meaning quite a bit of surface damage has been suffered and that the steroid creams are likely to be called into action soon.
Any enquiry about my skin when it’s at stage 3 normally results in a grumpy response of ‘you don’t want to know’! Stage 3 invariably causes an increase in the water bill as the number of Oilatum-filled baths trips. It is often at about this stage that eczema becomes evident on my face - the one areas I find most difficult to cope with.
The skin equivalent of DEFCON 1! At this point I break out the wet wraps, open up the full strength Betnovate and take cover.
Whilst there is a certain amount of humour in my description of these states, in reality there is little humour in evidence when I reach the latter stages.
However, I get fantastic support from all my family - my wife in particular. She encourages me to look after my skin, to stop scratching, to stop rubbing my eyes and to drink more water, despite my frequently irritable responses to most of these suggestions!
I would love to be able to end this article by explaining how I found a solution to my eczema and that I’m now in the clear but, alas, that’s not the case. Unfortunately, it’s an ongoing battle. Avoiding my key triggers is the easy part - breaking the scratching habit is the real challenge. My hand and feet have been particularly hard to control recently as they are the most accessible areas for unintentional scratching.
We now also have a very active 2-year-old-son, who loves watching his Dad put creams on every day and who feels very grown up when I let him apply some for me! We are hoping that he has inherited his mother’s skin genes and - while some eczema is in evidence behind his knees - so far, so good!
Despite all of the above, I’m working hard on trying to maintain a positive mental attitude, which can be a challenge when my skin is sore, my eyes are puffy and my cheeks red and inflamed. At times when it all becomes too much I try to live by the mantra ‘It is what it is’.
I can either let things get to me and get fed up or I can accept that I will have bad skin days, that it will improve and that - despite how I feel about it - my family, friends and colleagues don’t think any differently of me because of my skin.
That said, as they would all tell you, I still have my moments!
I can either let things get to me and get fed up or I can accept that I will have bad skin days.