Eczema - Facts and Figures

How many people are affected by eczema? It is very difficult to answer this precisely as there are so many different types of eczema. Skin disease in general can make up around 15% of the workload of a GP, and a third of this is down to eczema.

We know most about children with atopic eczema, and different studies suggest that as many as 15% of those living in developed countries will suffer from eczema at some time. This percentage has been gradually increasing over the past 30 years.

Do boys get eczema more than girls? Yes, atopic eczema is a little more common in boys than girls.

When does eczema start? It depends what sort of eczema you are talking about. The most common form, atopic eczema, starts in childhood, and the earlier it starts, the more likely the child is to grow out of it.

For example, if it starts before the age of 1, there is a more than 90% chance of growing out of it before adult life. Contact eczema, often affecting the hands, tends to come on in adult life, especially if there is a history of atopic eczema.

About 5–10% of children with atopic eczema will develop hand eczema in adult life even if they have grown out of their original eczema. This is especially true if they take up certain careers (e.g. as a hairdresser, mechanic or nurse) that lead to repeated irritation and damage to the hands.

Do people with eczema have a higher chance of developing asthma? Atopic eczema, asthma and hay fever tend to go together as ‘atopic’ diseases. Asthma is a common disease in its own right as it affects up to 10% of people at some time in their life.

A child with eczema has an increased risk of suffering from asthma as well – perhaps up to a 50% chance. Eczema tends to start earlier in life, and research is being done to see whether any form of treatment for the eczema will make later asthma less likely.

I moved to England from Jamaica 16 years ago. Two of my children have eczema, and I have other friends who also have affected children. Is eczema more common in the UK than in the West Indies?

Yes, it seems that eczema is much more common in the UK. One recent study showed that eczema is almost twice as common among schoolchildren in London than in Kingston, Jamaica.

When just the black children were studied, the difference was even more marked – eczema was up to four times more common in London. This difference also seems to apply to Indian and Bangladeshi populations living in the UK.

For several years, I have been getting recurrent crops of dry yellow blisters that come up on my hands on the palm side. They seem to start deep in the skin and end up on the surface as a brown scale. Is this a form of eczema?

This sounds as though it is a condition called palmar pustulosis, which can also affect the soles of the feet, when it is called palmoplantar pustulosis. The yellow blisters you describe contain pus that is sterile, so not caused by an infection.

Pus is just a collection of white cells, which are involved in inflammation as well as fighting infection. As they come up to the surface, the pustules dry up so that only a dry discoloured patch of skin is left. This condition is thought to have features of both eczema and another skin problem called psoriasis and can be quite difficult to treat.

Are there any other diseases that are less common if you have eczema?

High blood pressure (hypertension) seems to be rare in adults with atopic eczema, whether it is active or not. This has been found in studies, but no definite reason has yet been established.

When I saw a dermatologist about my eczema, he said I also had keratosis pilaris and gave me a cream for that – I thought it was all part of my eczema, but have I got two diseases?

Keratosis pilaris is a common condition in which the hair follicles in the skin become filled with plugs of keratin. It usually begins in childhood and tends to improve as you get older. The outer aspects of the upper arms and thighs feel rough because of the plugging of the follicles and can look red.

Many people have a very mild form of it, but it does seem to be more common in people with atopic eczema. You do have another disease but one that is associated with having eczema.

Creams that help to soften and ‘dissolve’ the keratin plugs are known as ‘keratolytics’, and this may be what the doctor has given you. They will only ever have a temporary effect on the skin, so you need to keep using them.

My husband is 51 and has redness and itching on his eyelids, spreading to his cheeks. Is this eczema?

It is very difficult to tell you what this is without more information. At his age, it could be a condition called rosacea, which can cause a red, sometimes bumpy, rash over the cheeks that can be associated with irritation of the eyelids – called blepharitis.

Rosacea can also cause flushing and a burning feeling in the face after alcohol, spicy foods or a sudden change of temperature. He should see his GP as the steroid creams used to treat eczema can sometimes cause rosacea if used for too long a time.

These days I only have mild eczema, but I recently developed blister eczema in the middle of the sole of one foot. It doesn’t seem to respond to my usual creams and seems to be getting bigger. Is it just more stubborn than my normal eczema?

You may not have ‘blister eczema’, which we call pompholyx, as it is just affecting one foot. Eczema tends to affect both sides of the body, so you should be suspicious that an outbreak like this is caused by something else. The first thing to come to mind is a fungal infection, which can be quite inflamed and can cause little blisters.

You should see your GP and get some skin scrapings taken to look for fungus. Many people treat fungal infections (also known as tinea) with steroids in the mistaken belief that the rash is eczema. The steroids will damp down the inflammation in the skin and mask the infection, allowing it to spread in the skin.

They then get a much larger patch of slightly itchy skin, often with a thin red line all the way round the edge where the fungus is growing – this is called ‘tinea incognito’ as the typical features of a fungal infection are hidden.