Applied to the skin, soothing creams can help relieve the red and often intensely itchy rash of eczema. Various nutrients, taken internally, may also hasten healing. They may even be effective in preventing recurrences or this all-too-common – and troublesome – skin complaint.

What is it?

Known medically as dermatitis, eczema causes inflamed patches of red, scaly skin on the face, scalp, hands and wrists; in front of the elbows and behind the knees; and in other areas of the body. Eczema is frequently very itchy, and scratching can aggravate it.

What causes it?

Often triggered by an allergy to foods, pollen, animal hair or other substances, ecema is likely to run in allergy-prone families; in fact, many sufferers have (or later develop) allergic conditions such as hay fever and asthma. The bodies of people with eczema have higher than normal amounts of histamine, a chemical that produces an allergic reaction when released in the skin. Some cases occur after contact with allergens, such as poison ivy or other poisonous plants, jewellery made of nickel or chrome, dyes, cosmetics, topical medications and cleaning agents. People who have poor circulation in their legs may suffer from a type of eczema called stasis dermatitis, which causes scaly patches around the ankles. Eczema can also be triggered or aggravated by dry air and stress.

What are the symptoms?

  • Areas of itchy skin that are red, dry, scaly, rough or cracked.
  • Tiny, pimple-like blisters.
  • Thickened, dry patches of skin in persistent cases of eczema.

Are there any natural therapies?

When used individually or in combination with other supplements or conventional drugs, nutrients and herbs can offer relief from flare-ups of eczema. These can be taken long term to prevent recurrences. The benefits should begin to appear within three or four weeks.

A number of supplements, taken internally, are useful in countering inflammation and tempering the allergic response. Try a few and see which ones work for you. Flaxseed oil and evening primrose oil contain different types of skin-revitalising essential fatty acids that can help relieve itching and inflammation. Vitamins A and E may alleviate skin dryness and itchiness; the dosage of vitamin A can be reduced when symptoms improve. The mineral zinc aids the healing process and boosts the functioning of the immune system; it's also necessary for the processing of vitamin A and essential fatty acids. When used long term, zinc should be taken with copper, because the zinc depletes the body's copper reserve. In additon, grape seed extract is rich in antioxidants called flavonoids, which inhibit the body's allergic responses.

It's often a good idea to apply a topical cream containing chamomile or licorice. These herbs reduce skin inflammation and can be surprisingly soothing when applied directly to lesions.

What else can I do?

  • Eliminate any foods that may cause an allergic reaction. These often include milk, eggs, shellfish, wheat, chocolate, nuts and strawberries.
  • Wear loose-fitting cotton clothing, which is less likely than other fabrics to irritate the skin.
  • Bathe or shower less frequently to keep skin from drying out. Use lukewarm water and avoid deodorant soaps, bubble baths and perfumed products. After bathing, pat your skin dry instead of rubbing it. Oatmeal baths or chickweed ointment can reduce itching.

Did you know?

Traditional Chinese herbalists often prescribe a tea for eczema that contains licorice and, depending on the symptoms, some nine other herbs. Although many complain that it tastes foul, the brew seems to be effective against severe eczema that is resistant to other treatments.