Eczema

Sarah Buckingham discusses how homeopathy can have more to offer than conventional treatment

It is no surprise that eczema is the most  frequently referred condition to the homeo­pathic hospitals. If you  have suffered with eczema you will know that conventional medicine  struggles to deal with this often very uncomfortable illness, and  treatments are palliative rather than curative. Anti­biotics,  antihistamines and steroids are on offer to manage symptoms and these  may help in the short-term, but can become in­effective over time or  less well tolerated. Recently, new “immunosuppressive” drugs have been  introduced to tackle severe eczema, including what are known as topical  calcineum inhibitors (tacrolimus, pimecrolimus). But a report in the British Medical Journal in 2006 judged that the “formal evidence is lacking… for the efficacy  of these agents in patients who have failed to respond to topical  steroids.” Patients are also worried about the long-term effects of  using strong topical corticosteroid cream, which can cause atrophy or  thinning of the top layer of the skin.

Eczema varies in severity from a few small patches of dry, itchy  redness to an extreme skin condition which can cover most of the body.  In acute cases there may be weeping, crusting and bleeding. Atopic  eczema is the most com­mon form. The genetic pre-disposition to develop  allergic reactions to substances, or “atopy”, is known to run in  families and atopic eczema sufferers will often have rel­atives who  suffer with the condition too, and perhaps also have asthma or hay  fever. Other types of eczema include contact dermatitis which is caused  by environmental or occupa­tional factors and seborrhoeic eczema, which  occurs mainly on the scalp and face, often starting off in the form of  dandruff which progresses to redness, itching and scaling.

The National Eczema Society (NES) esti­mates that up to one in five  children and one in 12 adults will experience the condition in one form  or another. Severe eczema in a child can have a massive effect on the  whole fam­ily and parents are understandably worried about using large  amounts of steroid creams to keep it under control. A regime of  apply­ing emollients and steroid creams coupled with complicated  bandaging is time-con­suming; children are often irritable and eat  poorly as they feel so uncomfortable. Severe itching can interrupt sleep  for everybody and children can feel stig­matised at school if their  rash is visible. For all these reasons people often seek homeopathic  treatment.

Homeopathic treatment 

There is evidence from both clinical trials and patient outcome  studies to show that homeopathy can have great results in eczema. A  recent study of 118 eczema patients published in Complementary Therapies  in Medicine journal reported that homeopathy was as effective as  standard conventional treatments in the short-term and more effective  than them in the longer term. In addition, patients themselves have  reported improvements in their condition after homeopathic treatment: at  Bristol Homeopathic Hos­pital a six-year study of patient outcomes  found that 82 per cent of eczema patients under 16 said they felt  “better” or “much better”. Similar results have been reported at the  other homeopathic hos­pitals. There are many possible causative factors  in a case of eczema which can affect the choice of homeopathic  medi­cine, so it is essential for the homeopathic doctor to collect as  much information as possible during the consultation.

As already mentioned, eczema is fre­quently linked with other  conditions and so it is valuable to spend plenty of time finding out  about all the medical prob­lems in the family. The consultation might  involve going into detail about the pregnancy, birth and early years of  the patient and finding out about sig­nificant events in their life.

A number of homeopathic medicines are known to have an affinity with  the skin and there is a variety of approaches that can be used  specifically in eczema. One of the most successful methods is to find  and prescribe the “constitu­tional” remedy, that is, the remedy that  fits the overall person – their mental and emotional state, their likes  and dislikes, and what makes their condition (and themselves) worse or  better – as well as their local skin symptoms. Sulphur, Natrum  muriaticum and Arsenicum album are examples of homeopathic medicines  prescribed in this way for the eczema patient.

Whilst finding the constitutional remedy for the patient is the  optimum way to treat eczema, it is not always pos­sible, especially in  babies. Fortunately there are other therapeutic models in homeopathy  that have great usefulness in eczema cases. Parents have often already  made some link between an event in their child’s life and the onset or  worsen­ing of their eczema. These can be sig­nificant events such as  separation from a parent or carer, the birth of a new baby in the  family, the introduction of new foods into the diet, a seemingly  unre­lated illness, or an accident. There is a range of homeopathic  medicines known to be useful in these situations, so that when there is a  clear link with the onset or worsening of symptoms, this approach is  particularly successful. Natrum muri­aticum can be useful after a child  has been separated from the mother, and Pulsatilla is indicated if the  onset of symptoms happens around puberty.

As well as using these approaches it is useful to add localised  treatments, because eczema can be such a distress­ing condition. These  can be in the form of homeopathic medicines based on the presenting  symptoms, rather than, or in addition to, the constitutional method. A  remedy such as Graphites is useful for a crusty, cracking eczema which  oozes a sticky, honey-coloured fluid. Sulphur might be indicated for a  red, burning itchy rash, worse for heat and water. Localised treatments  can also be applied directly to the skin, in the form of ointments,  tinc­tures and creams. A combination of Calendula and Urtica urens is a  really helpful mixture to sooth the skin.

Trigger factors 

It might also be useful to look at envir­onmental factors that may  be triggering or aggravating the eczema. House dust mites, pets, mould,  heat and humidity are all aspects of the home environment that can  trigger a flare-up. There may be circum­stances in the workplace that  have an effect too – occupations at greatest risk of developing contact  dermatitis for exam­ple are chefs, hairdressers, metal workers, nurses,  cleaners and construction workers.

According to the NES children under five are at greatest risk of  having their symptoms worsened by food allergies and it is thought that  in around 30 per cent of children with eczema, food may be a  contributing factor. It probably goes without saying that a healthy diet  based on fresh, additive-free foods is beneficial. In addition some  people are allergic to specific foods – a combination of homeo­pathic  treatment, improved nutrition and desensitisation should help to calm  aller­gic reactions. 

Ten helpful tips from the National Eczema Society

  • Bath in warm water, not hot. Heat  increases the itch. Do not use bubble baths which contain detergents and  will irritate the skin.
  • Avoid soap which is drying to the skin, use a soap substitute instead.
  • Apply emollients frequently and liberally.
  • Immediately after bathing apply emollient as this will help trap the water under it and thereby aid re-hydration.
  • Small children and the elderly should use a bath mat as emollients can make the bath slippery.
  • Wash clothes in the minimum effective  quantity of non-biological, un-perfumed washing powder. Give clothes an  extra rinse. Avoid fabric conditioners.
  • Wear cotton or silk next to the skin. Wool and man-made fibres can irritate the skin. Use cotton sheets and duvet covers.
  • Keep bedrooms cool, overheating makes eczema worse. Warm, moist environments also encourage house dust mites.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom, animal dander can make eczema worse.
  • Regular damp dusting and vacuuming will help to keep the dust levels down.

Drew's story

Melody Baker decided to seek out homeopathic treatment for her son  after little success down the conven-tional avenues. Drew’s eczema had  started around the age of one, at first in small patches on the insides  of his elbows. These never went away and then gradually the eczema  spread down his forearms to his hands, which were very bad by the time  he was two and a half.

Melody took Drew to the GP who prescribed steroid cream and wraps.  These did not help his skin and Melody tried Chinese medicine to find a  cure. On the whole this was not effective, though one of the treatments  did result in Drew being quite free of eczema for a few years.

However, Drew’s eczema came back with a vengeance when he started  secondary school. It appeared on his hands, spread up his arms to his  chest, neck and face and also to his tummy and legs. He was covered in  it. Melody asked their GP for help but he could only offer a stronger  steroid cream, which she did not want to use on her son’s skin. She  asked for a referral to the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (RLHH) and  Drew’s homeo-pathic treatment started in January 2008.

Dr Sara Eames saw Drew, now 14, at the RLHH and after only three  appointments there was a very significant improvement. The eczema  cleared from his face, chest, tummy, neck and arms. He still has some on  his hands, but Melody feels the homeopathic medicine and cream are  really helping him.

Homeopathic treatment will often result in an all-round improvement  and an increase in the sense of well-being, alongside improvements in  the main symptoms. This is certainly what Drew found. “I like having the  homeopathic medication because it’s natural and since taking it, it has  made me feel better on the inside as well as the out-side. I would  describe it as feeling fresh inside.”

Melody was grateful to get a referral for her son on the NHS. “I feel  so lucky. The treatment really does seem to be helping Drew’s eczema  and I feel reassured that there are no side-effects and there will be no  long-term damage to his skin”. Drew is much happier too: “My skin is  not as dry and doesn’t feel tight anymore. The eczema has totally  cleared from my chest and stomach area and improved in other places.”

Waqa's story 

Waqas’ case was quite similar to Drew’s in that his eczema was much  worse in the summer and it flared up badly when he was under pres-sure  or was anxious. Waqas had suffered from eczema since the age of two and  his condition was described as “intractable” by his doctors.

After many GP visits for creams, emollients and steroid treatment,  followed by a full dermatology consultation and a stay in hospital,  Waqas’ skin was no better and his mother, Rubina, was at her wit’s end:  “We’d given up.”

During a very bad flare-up at age 13, Rubina was approached by Dr  Jayashree Shah, a GP at the same NHS practice who had just completed her  Faculty-accredited homeopathic training. When Dr Shah heard about  Waqas’ case she suggested they might try using homeopathy.

Waqas and his mother had barely heard of homeopathy and Rubina  admitted she and her husband were sceptical. “To be honest, we thought  it was a bit of a gimmick and wouldn’t have chosen the treatment  ourselves!” But after their first consultation, at which Waqas told his  own story to Dr Shah, Rubina noticed a difference in him. After three  appointments spread over a period of four months, Waqas experienced a  gradual improvement, was able to stop using his creams and for an  18-month period was completely free of eczema. “It was as if he had  never had it.”

Since then there have been few flare-ups and Waqas has learned to  observe the signs of a flare-up in his condition through the better  understanding of his emotional side that has come through his  homeopathic encounter. Through GCSEs and A Levels, he has managed the  flare-ups himself with his individually prescribed homeopathic medicine.