Eczema is a very common skin condition. According to the National Eczema Association, over 31.6 million Americans have some form of eczema, which is almost 10% of the population. So if you suffer from eczema, know that you are not alone.
While some may turn to moisturizers and corticosteroid creams to help prevent and calm eczema flare-ups, topical treatments don’t always work for every patient. This is when light therapy may be used as an alternative treatment.
In this article, we are going to look at eczema, triggers, things you can do at home to help manage this condition as well as light therapy for eczema. We’ll cover what it is and how it works.
What is Eczema?
Eczema is actually not one condition, but the umbrella term for a group of conditions that cause the skin to become itchy, inflamed, or have a rash-like appearance.
There are seven types of eczema: atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and stasis dermatitis.
It’s possible to have more than one type of eczema at the same time. Each form has its own set of triggers and treatment requirements. This is why it’s not just suggested, but crucial to consult with a healthcare provider who specializes in treating eczema.
A dermatologist can help identify which type or types of eczema you may have and help you formulate a treatment plan that’s right for you.
Eczema can begin during all phases of life, from childhood, adolescence, through to adulthood and it can range from mild to severe. The symptoms in children and adults may be different. Eczema is not contagious.
While the exact cause of eczema is unknown, what we do know is that eczema can develop from a combination of genes and/or environmental triggers.
When an irritant or an allergen from outside or inside the body triggers the immune system, it produces inflammation which causes eczema symptoms.
Dry skin and irritants are the most common triggers of eczema. When your skin becomes too dry, it can easily become brittle, scaly, rough, or tight, which can lead to an eczema flare-up.
Everyday products that skin comes in contact with on a regular basis, like hand and dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, bubble bath and body wash, any topical lotions or cosmetics with fragrances, surface cleaners and disinfectants can all trigger eczema.
Even natural substances can cause your skin to burn and itch, or become dry and red. Natural liquids, like the juice from fresh fruit, vegetables, or meats, can also irritate the skin when touched.
Hormones can also be a common trigger in women. Increased eczema symptoms often present when hormone levels are changing, like during pregnancy and at certain points in the menstrual cycle.
Other common irritants include:
- extreme heat or cold
- metals (especially nickel)
- cigarette smoke
- certain fabrics like wool and polyester
- antibacterial ointment like neomycin and bacitracin
- formaldehyde, which is found in household disinfectants, glues and adhesives
- isothiazolinone, an antibacterial found in personal care products like baby wipes
- cocamidopropyl betaine, which is used to thicken shampoos and lotions
- Stress. Emotional stress can be an eczema trigger, but it’s not known why. Some people’s eczema symptoms get worse when they’re feeling stressed. Others may become stressed, just knowing they have eczema, and this can make their skin flare up.
There may be other triggers that we haven’t mentioned because eczema affects everyone differently.
One person’s triggers may not be the same as another’s, and eczema symptoms may become worse at certain times of the year or appear on different areas of the body.
There is currently no cure for eczema. Treatment for eczema focuses on healing the affected skin to minimize symptoms and prevent flare ups.
A doctors will work out a treatment plan based on an individual’s age, symptoms, and current state of health. There is no one ‘best treatment’ for all eczema sufferers.
For some people, eczema goes away over time. For others, however, it is a lifelong condition.
Before we go any further, there’s something we need to talk about – it’s important to be informed about your condition and seek out all of the information that’s out there to better understand it, so you can play an active role in your treatment.
However, the information in this article is not meant as a substitute for going to the doctor.
Your honorary degree in diagnostic medicine from Google University does not qualify you to self-diagnose.
This information is here to help you better understand your condition and also provides a few tips that may help. But you need to formulate an effective treatment plan with your doctor.
With that said and out of the way, your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following to treat symptoms of eczema, depending on your situation:
Topical corticosteroid creams and ointments: These are anti-inflammatory medications and should relieve the main symptoms of eczema, such as inflammation and itchiness. There are some topical corticosteroid creams and ointments available online but it’s best to see a doctor as the OTC types are less effective than prescription topical corticosteroids.
Systemic corticosteroids: If topical treatments are not effective, a doctor may prescribe systemic corticosteroids as injections or oral tablets.
Antibiotics: Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics if a bacterial skin infection occurs as a result of eczema.
Antihistamines: Antihistamines tend to cause drowsiness, so they may be prescribed to reduce not only reduce itching, but also for you to get a good night sleep and prevent nighttime scratching.
Topical calcineurin inhibitors: This drug suppresses the immune system to decreases inflammation and help prevent flare ups.
Phototherapy: This involves exposure to UVA or UVB waves which can treat moderate dermatitis.
What is Phototherapy?
Phototherapy, also known as light therapy, is an FDA-approved treatment option that uses ultraviolet (UV) light to treat eczema and other conditions. In short, we’re talking something similar to the light exposure from tanning bed bulbs, but with more medically-targeted light.
To be clear, you shouldn’t go using a tanning bed as a home eczema treatment. They’re not the same thing, just similar.
Phototherapy is used to decrease your body’s inflammatory responses that lead to eczema flare-ups. While some people with eczema may be treated with moisturizers and corticosteroid creams to help prevent and calm these flare-ups, topical treatments don’t always work for every patient. That’s when your doctor may prescribe phototherapy.
Phototherapy is generally used for eczema that that covers a wide area of your body. It is also sometimes used for localized eczema, such as on hands or feet, which have not responded well to topical treatments.
Advantages of phototherapy for eczema:
- it may help clear your skin
- you may experience fewer eczema flare ups in the future
- it may decrease the need for topical medications
Disadvantages of phototherapy for eczema:
- if sunlight happens to be one of your triggers, the treatment may worsen your eczema
- phototherapy will require ongoing weekly treatments
- while rare, light therapy may increase your risk of developing skin cancer
Is phototherapy safe?
Phototherapy is unlike an indoor tanning bed or being outdoors in direct sunlight. It uses a controlled number of wavelengths for short amounts of time.
It’s been FDA-approved and is considered safe.
There are different types of light therapy, but Narrowband UVB is not only the most common type used to treat eczema, but also the safest as it uses a small part of the UVB spectrum, which cuts down on exposure to UV radiation.
Though FDA-approved and deemed safe, there are some potential minor side effects that can occur in some people, especially those with sensitive skin, including increased itchiness, redness or discoloration after treatment, similar to a sunburn, tender or dry skin, burning or stinging, acne breakouts.
There are potential long-term side effects that include signs of premature skin aging, such as wrinkles and age spots, white and brown spots on your skin, future cataracts.
But your dermatologist or technician will monitor the amount of radiation you’re receiving and recommend short durations to help minimize any damage to your skin.
You should never attempt to substitute tanning in the sun or use a tanning bed or UV lamp, for phototherapy. Sun exposure, tanning beds and UV lamps carry far higher and more dangerous health risks, including developing cancer.
How is phototherapy done?
Phototherapy is usually done at your dermatologist’s office or at an outpatient clinic at a hospital.
When you arrive for your appointment, you will apply a moisturizing oil to your skin and stand in a large cabinet undressed, (except for undies) and goggles to protect your eyes.
The light-emitting machine will be activated for a short time – usually just seconds to minutes – and it will either treat the entire body or just certain exposed areas.
How long does it take for light therapy to work for eczema?
You should start to see improvement in eczema symptoms with phototherapy in about one or two months of steady treatment.
At this time, the frequency of the visits can sometimes be reduced or stopped for a period to see if the eczema is in remission.
Phototherapy is not for everyone
Whether phototherapy is the right course of treatment for you will depend on your type of eczema. Phototherapy will be less effective for contact dermatitis eczema, as in eczema that is triggered by your skin being in contact with an irritant or allergen.
While phototherapy may lessen your symptoms slightly, the best treatment for contact dermatitis is to identify your triggers and remove them from your environment.
Pregnant and breast feeding women, as well as anyone with a history of cancer should not undergo phototherapy.
And then there is the time factor. Phototherapy might sound like a quick and easy treatment because all you have to do is stand there and it will only be a few seconds to a few minutes.
But in order for phototherapy to be effective, you have to undergo weekly multiple treatments. This means that, depending on where the phototherapy booth is located, going through the whole process of getting there, undressing and redressing, being treated, and getting back will take a big chunk out of your day.
It may not be so easy if you have a full-time job, or if you have young children at home. This is one of the big considerations to take into account when you are deciding what treatment is best for you.
LED Light Therapy for Eczema, Does It Help?
LED light therapy, which is also called light therapy (which can make things confusing), is a bit different from phototherapy. While phototherapy uses UV rays, light therapy uses LEDs (light emitting diodes) in different frequencies like red light, blue light, etc. to accomplish different things.
LED therapy is a skincare treatment that uses varying wavelengths of light in different colors. The LED’s color depends on its frequency within the electromagnetic spectrum.
Different frequencies (colors) of LED light produce different beneficial effects for the skin.
A study conducted to determine whether blue light therapy was effective, concluded that blue light was “safe and effective in the reduction of eczema lesions”. It should be noted that it was a small study with 21 participants.
There have also been studies on the efficacy of red LED light therapy for eczema.
Research into blue and red LED light therapy to treat eczema is in its infancy, but it does show promise.
That having been said, this does not mean you should run out to the store to buy or order LED lights on amazon and start treating yourself. If LED light therapy is something that you want to know more about – talk to your doctor.
Your health care professional will be able to tell you if this is a viable option for you and your type of eczema.
If you have eczema, you need to work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan tailored to your particular eczema condition. While that treatment plan may include prescription medication and/or phototherapy, there are several things that you can also do at home to help alleviate symptoms of eczema and encourage skin health – no prescription needed!
Take lukewarm baths – Rather than taking a hot bath that will dry out your skin, make it a lukewarm bath to help prevent over drying and apply moisturizer within 3 minutes of bathing to lock in moisture.
Wear cotton and soft fabrics & avoid rough, scratchy fibers and tight fitting clothing – eczema flare ups can be triggered by abrasive fibers or prolonged rubbing of fabric against your skin. Keep the clothing next to your skin soft, light and loose.
Use a humidifier in dry or cold weather – a humidifier adds moisture to the air and helps prevent dry skin.
Use mild or hypo allergenic soaps, shampoos and body products – make sure that anything that touches your skin is free of chemical irritants.
Learn your eczema triggers – all kinds of things can trigger eczema and triggers are different for everyone. If you learn what your triggers are, you can avoid them and help control flare ups.
Try to avoid sweating – sometimes it’s unavoidable, but try not to engage in activities that will cause you to sweat. Perspiration is mostly made up of water, but also contains urea, lactate and minerals such as sodium. Sweating can dry out the skin through the loss of fluids, and the sodium in sweat can further dehydrate the skin as well as cause stinging and irritation.
Moisturize! – Moisture is key to preventing flare-ups. Moisturize every day with one of these dermatologist recommended moisturizers for people with eczema:
Vanicream Moisturizing Cream
- Free of dyes, fragrance, masking...
- Dermatologist Tested. won't clog pores
- Can be used as a night cream, for...
- Awarded seal of acceptance from the...
- Please note there are no fragrances or...
Vanicream is a perfect option for eczema sufferers because it’s free of anything that could potentially irritate your skin, including fragrance, lanolin, parabens, formaldehyde, dyes, and anything other ingredients that could cause a flare up.
CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
- [ HYALURONIC ACID MOISTURIZER ] With...
- [ ESSENTIAL CERAMIDES ] Ceramides are...
- [ DRY SKIN RELIEF ] A deficiency of...
- [ DERMATOLOGIST RECOMMENDED ] CeraVe...
- [ GENTLE DAILY MOISTURIZER ] For face...
CeraVe moisturizing cream contains ceramides, a.k.a. the building blocks of a healthy skin barrier, so its non-greasy formula provides the protection your skin needs to stay hydrated. It also contains hyaluronic acid and glycerin which will keep your skin super moisturized for longer.
Aquaphor Advance Therapy Healing Ointment
- 1 essential solution for many skin care...
- Different from a lotion or cream, this...
- Extreme weather conditions and frequent...
- Preservative and fragrance free,...
- Color variations occur due to the nature...
Aquaphor contains a high percentage of petrolatum, mineral oil, glycerin, and panthenol, so it’s a pretty thick, heavy-duty moisturizer that will not only help to lock in moisture better than most, but is great for any severe flare-ups.
Phototherapy is considered an alternative option to treatment for eczema when other measures haven’t worked. It may also help by controlling inflammation and itchiness, but it may require multiple weekly sessions over the course of several months to be effective for your eczema.
The side effects and risks of phototherapy are considered minimal because UV rays are controlled and gradually increased with each treatment. However, it’s still possible to experience sunburn-like redness or discoloration and discomfort following your session. Talk with your doctor about all the risk factors associated with phototherapy.
Most importantly – it’s important to formulate a treatment plan WITH your healthcare provider. He or she will be able to advise whether phototherapy or LED light therapy is a viable option for your particular condition.