Most of us take for granted all those thousands of tasks that our little five digit machines do for us. We usually just assume that our hands, miracles in and of themselves, will preform as usual – feeding us, cleaning us, and working hard towards the fulfillment of our hearts delight. That is, unless a problem such as hand eczema develops. Then everything changes. The simplest tasks become massive undertakings. Slicing a piece of fruit to enjoy in the hot summer months can become a dreaded painful act. Eczema of the hands is debilitating, socially embarrassing and just plain sucks!
I treat many people for hand eczema, including all its different variants: pompholox eczema, dis-hydrotic eczema and atopic eczema. In each of these situations the hands may be red, inflamed, and itchy, with little tiny blisters popping up just below the skin’s surface. This irritated phase may then cycle with a very dry, cracked and painful phase. Pretty much every person I see with hand eczema complains of how hard it is to cope, much more than eczema in other parts of the body, as our hands are responsible for such a missive amount of activities. Without the full uninhibited use of our hands, life can be misery!
Hand eczema – before treatment
The western treatment usually involves the use of cortico-steroids, which are usually extra strong ones as the hands have an extra layer of skin to penetrate through. The down side of the this type of treatment is permanent thinning of the skin. The skin thus becomes weakened and even more prone to future flare ups, leaving one feeling trapped in a vicious cycle. I have seen many a 35 year olds hands look like they are ninety, all because of the years of over using this potent medicine.
Chinese medicine sees hand eczema, or any eczema for that matter, as a problem stemming from the inside of the body that needs to be addressed in order for long term gain to be achieved. Herbal medicines, both drunk as a tea and applied directly to the skin, have remarkable healing effects – clearing away inflammation, stopping itch, healing cracks, and re-moistening damaged dry skin. The secret to a successful outcome, as I have mentioned before, is when the herbal prescription is made based on an individuals needs and unique presentation, rather than the generic and all too simple “this medicine for this condition” approach of western medicine.
Hand eczema – after treatment
Beyond the powerful healing abilities of natural medicines, is the protection of the hands themselves. People with hand eczema must, at all costs, learn how to take care of their hands properly. Soap, chemicals, juices from fruit and vegetables, and even just plain water can be both irritating and extremely drying to the skin. Both irritating and drying agents will induce a flare up of the eczema. In fact, under microscopic investigation, inflamed skin cells can still be seen up to 9 months after ones skin has seemingly been free from any noticeable eczema. It is as if the eczema is waiting, in hiding, for the perfect time to pop out again – say when the person starts to get risky, washing the dishes without gloves or over-using those antibiotic cleaning wipes and soaps that our culture has become so obsessed with! It is very important to still take care of ones hands for at least a year after stopping treatment and their hands seem stable.
The best way to protect the hands is to avoid over washing, use plastic gloves when doing dishes and even washing ones hair in the shower, and use cotton gloves when sweeping and doing other such work. Follow this with proper moisturizing, preferably with non-petroleum based products. The best moisturizers are ones that create a good barrier that keeps moisture in, while at the same time allowing the skin to properly breathe. My favourite creams are ones that contain such natural saturated oils as Shea, Cocoa, or Coconut as a base.
Actually a good moisturizing cream, that my wife recently discovered, is made from fare trade shea butter and has no synthetic ingredients, is not animal tested, is free of paraben, and is fairly inexpensive. It is called Moisturizing Body lotion, by Everyday Shea. Of course people with eczema tend to have fickle skin and so should experiment with the different creams to find the one that works best for them.
Wishing you good health,
Dr. Trevor Erikson