How Does Eczema Affect Your Overall Health?
Rachel Zohn | Sept 28, 2017
Reviewed by Michael Lehrer, MD on Dec 10, 2017
Eczema is a non-contagious condition that causes the skin to become inflamed and itchy. But eczema isn’t just skin deep; it can affect overall health in a variety of ways. There is ongoing research into this field as doctors become more aware of the deeper impacts of eczema, said Dr. Adam Friedman, associate professor of dermatology at The George Washington University of School of Medicine & Health Sciences.
What is eczema?
While more than 30 million Americans live with some form of eczema, an estimated 4.1 million adults have atopic dermatitis, a chronic condition caused by an immune system malfunction. It often begins in childhood with symptoms that include intense itching and scaly, blotchy, inflamed skin that can crack into deep fissures or develop blisters.
Eczema is more than skin deep
Eczema can have serious impacts on a patient’s health. Research has shown people with eczema have an increased risk for developing a number of health problems, including food allergies, asthma, and obesity. They may even be more prone to smoke and drink, and may be at higher risk for heart disease or stroke. Those with eczema also deal with quality of life issues, such as lack of sleep and mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression.
Mental health and quality of life
People suffering from eczema may feel profound effects on their daily life. They may feel isolated from others, not wanting to go out in public or constantly hiding areas of their body that are inflamed. It may affect their relationships and lead to anxiety, stress and depression. If you suffer from eczema, you are not alone. There are support groups and research groups like the National Eczema Association to help you.
Atopic dermatitis has been shown to be an immune-driven disease. This discovery was made, in part, because of research into new drugs that broadly suppress the immune system and in turn also reduce symptoms in patients. Certain immune proteins that amplify the body’s ability to counteract invading viruses and bacteria can mistakenly target bodily tissues, instead. It was found that blocking the actions of these proteins reversed the disease process.
Eczema and allergies
Children with eczema may be at higher risk of developing a variety of allergies. In fact, about 37 percent of young children with moderate to severe eczema also have food allergies. This is considered to be part of the “atopic march,” a progression of allergic conditions that starts for many children with eczema followed by diagnosis of food allergies, hay fever and asthma.
Could eczema cause food allergies?
One study has shown that eczema plays a key role in triggering food sensitivities in babies. Food allergies have been thought to develop in the gut, but research shows that food allergies may develop in immune cells in the skin. When the skin is inflamed and broken from eczema, it leaves active immune cells exposed. This breakdown of the skin barrier may act as a “port of entry” for environmental allergens.
Loss of sleep
The intense itch of eczema often prevents patients from getting a good night’s sleep. Lack of sleep can aggravate eczema symptoms, making it even more difficult to sleep and creating an unpleasant cycle for patients. Children who don’t get enough sleep can have behavioral problems and adults are left fatigued and struggling with daytime sleepiness.
Poor health habits
Besides wreaking havoc on the skin, eczema may lead some people to have terrible health habits. Research has shown that people with eczema are more likely to smoke and drink more than those who don’t have eczema. They may also be less likely to exercise or engage in vigorous activity, in part because sweating can aggravate eczema.
Link between eczema and heart disease is unclear
People with eczema may be more prone to heart disease and stroke, but it’s not clear if that comes from bad lifestyle habits or from eczema itself. The findings of some studies have suggested the increase could stem from chronic inflammation, while other studies have found the opposite.
Eczema and the flu shot
Flu shots are an important way of safeguarding against getting the flu, but people with eczema should request it be given into the muscle, rather than under the skin. The flu shot may be less effective for people with eczema as their dry, cracked skin is often colonized by Staphylococcus bacteria. This seems to weaken the immune response from the flu vaccine.
Increased risk of skin infections
Because eczema damages the skin barrier, patients can develop bacterial skin infections. Sufferers often develop infections like impetigo, which causes red sores on the face, or cellulitis, which causes redness, swelling, pain and tenderness and can be potentially serious.
Doctors are also becoming more aware that there is a strong connection between eczema, asthma and allergies and internal infections, such as upper respiratory or sinus infections. It may be that people with eczema are prone to other sorts of internal infections, as well, Dr. Friedman said.
Being aware of how eczema can impact your health and your quality of life can help you take steps to avoid many of these negative effects. There are new treatments coming online all the time. Seeking treatment and keeping your eczema under control can help you feel better, inside and out.