Your skin is the largest organ of your body and performs many functions. It acts as a barrier against bacteria and viruses. It helps regulate your body temperature by sweating. It manufactures vitamin D from sunlight. And it protects your inner organs from damage by heat, injury or radiation. With so many vital jobs, so it should be treated with care.

Skin complaints can either be caused by external agents eg contact dermatitis or by internal conditions such as atopic eczema.

Atopic eczema usually starts in childhood and is passed on by the genes of your family, but is not infectious. The skin is very dry, red and itchy, especially in the creases of the skin, for example the insides of the elbows or knees.

Contact dermatitis occurs when the skin becomes inflamed by directly touching an irritant. The rash is dry, red and scaly. Sometimes an irritant affects the body’s immune system resulting in an allergic reaction characterised by itchy bumps called hives as well as a red itchy rash. An antihistamine tablet helps in this case.

Contact dermatitis can obviously be helped by eliminating the irritant. This could be something straightforward like a cleaning chemical or a metal eg nickel found in jewellery and buckles. But in other cases, it could be more difficult to solve and a patch test may be carried out by a dermatologist. This involves applying a small amount of known allergens or irritants to the skin and observing the reaction. Plants such as Primula, Chrysanthemums and Tulip bulbs are sometimes the culprit.

People with atopic eczema are often sensitive to allergens which could be a food substance such as peanuts, cow’s milk or wheat. House dust mites and woollen clothing are other examples which can trigger a flare up

The treatment for eczema and dermatitis involves keeping the skin hydrated by the application of generous amounts of emollient creams or ointments and bathing or showering in special gentle moisturising preparations. When a flare up occurs, steroid creams may be applied sparingly once or twice a day depending on the strength of the product. Flare ups can occur due to stress, hormonal changes in women, changes in temperature, as well as sensitivity to allergens.

Because the skin barrier has been broken down, bacteria, viruses and moulds can invade causing an infection. The skin may become more inflamed and weepy. This is best treated by seeing your doctor for advice and usually an antibiotic or antifungal preparation.

Eczema or dermatitis should not be confused with psoriasis, another common skin complaint affecting about 2% of the population. This is often a hereditary condition and is characterised by red patches of thickened skin covered in patches of silvery scales mainly on the knees, elbows, hands or scalp. It is unpredictable and may disappear but can be triggered by stress or a sore throat. It is itchy, inflamed and the thickened skin flakes off.

Treatment is with emollients to soften the skin, often with the addition of salicylic acid to help remove areas of thickened skin. Steroid creams or ointments of differing strengths can be prescribed by your doctor, but should be monitored. Preparations containing tar, dithranol (which can stain the skin, clothes and the bath), vitamin D preparations eg calcitriol and vitamin A gels are all useful. Severe psoriasis may need oral medicines or ultraviolet light therapy.

You can help yourself by eating a sensible diet, avoiding processed food, eating plenty of vegetables and fruit. The best supplements to try are omega 3 oil and vitamin D (but not a massive dose). Herbal preparations applied to the skin in a cream form are Calendula, St John’s Wort and Chamomile essential oil.

Avena Sativa, commonly called oatmeal, can be put in a loose woven bag and tied to the bath tap – this makes the water milky. Then place the bag of oats in the bath and soak for about 10 minutes, pat dry and apply emollient cream.

If you need any advice please ask Sophie or myself and we will be happy to help.