(EDMONTON, CANADIAN UNIVERSITY PRESS) The science behind eczema is simple — a genetic mutation that stops the skin from holding in moisture, resulting in an inflamed rash that is sensitive, painful and relentlessly itchy.
It’s incurable, but mostly manageable.
Inflammations, or flare-ups, can happen anywhere on the body. For me, it was mostly on the top of my right hand — the one I use to clean the dishes, introduce myself, serve patrons, write and generally do everything with.
The worst part is the fact that I’m a cyclist, and sweat after a hard ride made my hands itchier than normal. If there was one time that I was most prone to scratching, it was a couple minutes after locking up my bike. And scratching makes everything worse.
So I became left-handed, hiding my right whenever possible. I shook hands with my right palm facing up; I drank beer, used a fork and gestured all with my left. Anything to avoid the inevitable stares and glancing eyes. Part of my undoing was holding the eczema-ridden part of my hand against the ridge of the back pocket. The rough surface was just enough to send my hand into an itching frenzy — one that inevitably led to bleeding, guilt and shame.
People will always say that to get rid of it, you have to stop scratching. The itch was so intense that I only remember being able to hold back from scratching twice in the past year. One of those two times, my girlfriend had to actively pin me away from my hand.
How did I get to that point? How does anybody get to that point? Mostly it was reluctance to see a doctor.
Mild eczema is supposed to be easy to get rid of. Simply moisturize with an unscented hand cream, such as Glysomed, or any hand cream that says “eczema” anywhere on the bottle. My partner made hand creams using beeswax and essential oils to soothe the skin. Nothing worked.
When the skin is broken there is always the potential for a bacterial infection, most commonly Staphylococcus aureus, known as a staph infection. Staph is virtually harmless when it gets under the skin, but it makes treatment more difficult.
At this point, clearing it up without seeing a doctor is a Sisyphean task. There is progress and it will start to clear, but eventually that boulder just rolls down the other side.
Most people don’t get it that badly, and most people treat it before I did. For those who don’t go to a doctor in time, and for those who have worse cases, there is help.
Sabrina Lee has been dealing with eczema all her life. It was at its worst in junior high and high school.
“It’s basically your whole entire life,” she says. “You get up in the morning, and you have to deal with it, and it’s something that’s always in the back of your mind.”Her struggle brought her to start an Edmonton support group called YEGzema, giving people non-medical advice on dealing with flare-ups. YEGzema started in 2013 when she won a $1,000 award from the Field Law Community Fund Program. Since then, she has been helping others and providing advice for anyone who asks.
It took Lee years to get it under control, but even that success is relative.
“It’s still not amazing. I don’t think it’ll ever be gone, but I’d say the amount of flare-ups have decreased quite a bit — it happens just a few times instead of a handful of times each month,” she says.
Getting there took a lot of lifestyle changes, including cutting dairy and gluten from her diet as well as moving to an apartment without carpet. She also tried methods that have worked for others, such as acupuncture, Chinese medicine and light therapy, to no avail.
“I’d say that going on the diet was very helpful, and it kind of allowed it to heal and for me to get it under control,” Lee says. “I tried so many different treatments that apparently worked for everyone else, and nothing worked for me. It was super discouraging knowing that I could have this forever and never have it under control.”
The Eczema Society of Canada is another helpful organization that provides information for people with eczema. The website has tips and facts about eczema, and how to manage it, as well as a list of approved skin care products for managing the condition. Anything can cause or worsen eczema, such as allergies, soaps, harsh chemicals, sweat, temperature changes and weather. Dry climates are hard on skin, making Edmonton a particularly inhospitable home for many eczema sufferers, Lee says.
“The winter is probably the worst. It’s super dry because you crank up the heat . . . basically you can moisturize a million times a day and it doesn’t feel like anything is really going through,” she says.
“I’d highly recommend, unfortunately, moving to a more humid climate.”
Eczema can be a debilitating condition. I broke down every time that I saw the eczema pop up in an image or video taken of me, every time that a person took a second, disgusted glance, every time I was asked if I got into a fight, and every time that I couldn’t stop scratching.
It’s gone now, and what’s left is a visible scar, and more fragile skin from overuse of cortisone ointments. What held me back the most was feeling alone and isolated in my condition. I know now that is not the case. Even though Edmonton isn’t the most hospitable climate for people suffering from eczema, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is support, and there are other people going through the exact same thing.
“The most important thing to say is you’re not alone in this,” Lee says.