Ditching the itch - why is eczema on the rise?
Do you suffer from sneezing and itchy skin? Are there some things you can’t eat? If so, you’re not alone – more and more New Zealanders are finding themselves living with allergies and with related conditions like asthma and eczema.
Around 1 in 10 young children have food allergies, nearly 1 in 3 have eczema by 12 months of age, and groups like Allergy NZ say we’re now in the midst of an allergy epidemic.
“In a very short time, half a generation or less, we’ve seen an explosion in the incidence or prevalence of allergies,” says Allergy NZ CEO Mark Dixon. “In that short time something’s happened – something is happening.”
But what exactly is happening? That’s not an easy question to answer, and there are multiple theories about what’s causing the problem.
The hygiene hypothesis
One explanation you may have heard about is the hygiene hypothesis – this suggests that a lack of exposure to certain microbes in early childhood has a knock-on effect on the development of the immune system.
We can think of allergic reactions as our immune systems overreacting to the presence of certain substances – and according to the hygiene hypothesis, this could be because the development of the immune system has been hampered by factors including urban living (rather than rural living), and modern sanitary practices.
A New York Times article from towards the end of last year looked further into this theory, and some of the international research being used to test it – you can read it here.
But the hygiene hypothesis may only partially explain what’s going on, and the situation is made more complicated when it comes to conditions like eczema because of the role played by our genes.
Eczema – scratching the surface
We used to think that eczema was an allergic condition itself, but research now suggests it comes about as a result of genetic factors. The effect it has on the skin, however, means that people with eczema are more susceptible to developing allergies.
Allergy NZ’s Penny Jorgensen explains that the skin can be thought of “a bit like bricks and mortar”, and that in the case of eczema, “there is a problem with the mortar”.
In effect, the skin leaks and loses moisture – letting little cracks develop in the skin. These cracks in the body’s natural barrier allow allergens like pollen, dust mites and nasty chemicals in, causing much of the inflammation and itchiness that many of us are familiar with.
Dealing with eczema is tough enough if you’re an adult, but it can be even more trying for our young ones and the families caring for them – just ask Mark Dixon, who remembers the sleepless nights after his son developed eczema at about the age of two.
“As you know with little people, they don’t have a full range of expression at that age so the only way that he could express his pain or his discomfort at the time was through crying,” he says.
But while there is still no ‘cure’ for eczema (most people tend to grow out of it with time), there are things you can do to ease its symptoms in the interim.
These include making sure skin is kept well moisturised – moisturising several times a day or more if possible – and avoiding skin products that contain irritants like fragrances, soap and detergents.