I Didn't Know I Had Eczema!
I have spent the last few years of my life in an itchy nightmare. I never had allergies as a child, but I suddenly started having what I thought were allergic reactions to some unknown substance when I was about 19. Although I never did figure out what caused them, I stopped getting them after a few months, so I left the matter alone. But when they came back a couple of years later, and started to get increasingly worse, I started to get desperate for an answer to what was going on.
The problem started out as dry, itchy skin. It would appear at seemingly random times, usually on the inside of my forearm or on the back of my legs. At that early stage, a little bit of lotion would do the trick and the itch would disappear in no time.
However, as time went on, the symptoms got much worse. They quickly progressed to red and inflamed rashes that looked like a hundred mosquitoes had launched a feeding frenzy on my skin. The rashes were unbearably itchy and sometimes stung from the damaged caused by my scratching. They would last a few hours and then be gone, as if nothing had ever happened.
Sometimes, just as a rash was disappearing, a new one would pop up on another part of my body, like on my back or even on my neck. There really didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason as to when and where they were showing up.
Not only were the rashes embarrassing, but they were interfering with my life as well. Losing focus at work was easy because of the constant itchiness nagging at me. Not to mention the countless nights I was kept awake, unable to make that itchy feeling go away.
Searching For the Cause
I went to see a doctor about my "allergies." After I went to my regular doctor with the problem and being told there was nothing she could do because it was all in my head, I got down to business trying to pinpoint the allergy myself. I began eliminating common allergens from my household. Scented lotions, soaps, detergents and many other products containing artificial ingredients went out the window.
I also tried a diet makeover. No more artificial ingredients. I learned to eat more natural and raw foods, and I also started making sure I was getting plenty of water!
These two things combined helped my case a great deal. I had managed to make my home an allergen-free zone, and was finally able to live comfortably. That is, until I lost my house and temporarily moved into my mother-in-law's house. Even though I was still using the same products and eating the same, rashes returned and I was miserable again.
Once again I went on a rampage, cutting anything and everything out of my life if there was any possibility that it was causing an allergic reaction for me. This time I removed my houseplants and candles. I replaced my shampoo and toothpaste with kitchen ingredients and even cut dairy and bread out of my diet. Regardless of the efforts I made, nothing helped this time. The rashes were extremely persistent and the constant itch was driving me crazy.
The only thing I noticed that was different this time was: my rashes were always way worse when I came home in the evenings. Anything I encountered during the day didn't even compare. So I knew for sure there was something in that house that was irritating my skin.
Finally, a Diagnosis
Frustrated, I considered the possibility that my symptoms may not be allergies after all. Since my doctor was no help I went elsewhere to see if there was someone else who could figure it out. I tested for everything from scabies to diabetes before I finally found a doctor who could tell me what was really going on:
I had eczema. She explained that eczema is an immune system disorder, not a condition that was contained to my skin. Basically, when exposed to foreign substances or situations, my immune system gets overloaded and doesn't know what to do, so it reacts by causing rashes on my skin. Many things can trigger a reaction, like common allergens, those artificially scented lotions, even pet dander and plants.
Whatever it was that was irritating my immune system was causing the rashes. Unfortunately though, the doc said that it is very tough to test for and pinpoint exactly what that is, since there are so many possibilities. It's as simple as getting a whiff of some stray pollen in the air and my whole system would start to freak out.
She suggested that I start taking an anti-histamine on the really bad days, use topical cortizone cream when rashes break out to keep the symptoms at bay when they occur. She also suggested that I keep a "rash journal" in which I write down when my rashes occur and everything I've done in the past couple of hours. She hoped that this would help me find patterns and avoid things that commonly contribute.
I went out and stocked up on anti-itch products. I found that Zyrtec works the best for relieving itch on the really bad days, and cortizone creams work well for relieving the small patchy rashes.
My journal was the most valuable tool in managing my eczema! I kept track of every time I had a rash, and what I was doing shortly before. I learned that my biggest triggers are exposure to mold (which is all over my mother-in-law's house), dust, and perfumes. Consumption of artificial sweeteners (aspartame, particularly) is also one of my biggest triggers. I found that my rashes are always much worse than normal when my stress levels are high, and when I consume too much caffeine.
I try my best to stay away from anything that I know might cause an issue. I take 24-hour Zyrtec only on the days that are really bad, and other times I manage small rashes with anti-itch cream.
Sometimes though, I end up with a rash that covers the entire backside of my legs. It makes my skin swell and feel as though it's on fire. No amount of anti-itch cream or lotions can soothe it. In this case, I use ice packs. It reduces the inflammation of the skin and numbs it long enough for me to get the rash under control without the urge to scratch it more.
Another trick is to wear as much clothing as possible. One of my biggest issues is giving in to the itch sensation and scratching until my skin bleeds. I can't help it. So I try to avoid wearing clothes that leave my skin exposed to my fingernails when I'm having outbreaks. If I do start scratching, I do much less damage to my skin.
Some Parting Advice
My biggest advice to you is to be patient! It took me several years to figure out what was going on, and then a couple more to realize all of the things I was doing to cause reactions without even realizing it. Even with all that time and effort, I still struggle sometimes. If you have eczema, then your immune system needs some serious TLC and taking care of it is extremely important. Drink lots of water, make sure you're getting the vitamins you need, and do whatever else you can to build your immune system.
© 2014 Kristen Haynie