Hand eczema, sometimes called hand dermatitis, isn’t going to kill you, and for those who don’t have it, it may seem minor. For those who do, it can be devastating. It’s difficult to treat, and there’s no cure, and it can interfere with work and play. Although you can relieve its symptoms, it’s likely to reappear.
Contrary to what many people without eczema think, it’s not contagious. No one knows the root cause, and no one has a cure; there are just treatments. Hand eczema often looks like dry, chapped skin. Initially, it can be hard to tell the difference. But as it progresses, you’ll see:
- Scaly and inflamed skin that may itch or burn
- Deep, painful cracks
- Rough, leathery patches of skin
No one knows what exactly causes eczema. However, researchers believe it’s often a combination of genes and a reaction to a substance inside or outside the body–a trigger. People with eczema tend to have an over-reactive immune systems that, when triggered, respond by producing inflammation.
Obviously, it’s better to avoid a full-blown flare than to try to treat it. Here is some advice on how to do just that.
- Avoid triggers.Eczema often flares in response to an irritant or allergen. Possible causes include cleaning products, certain foods, alcoholic beverages, metal, soap (especially antibacterial soap, plastic, dyes and fragrances–and of course, latex. So, when possible, you’ll want to identify what’s causing a flare and avoid it. But of course, that’s a lot easier said than done. The response isn’t always immediate, so it can be hard to identify exactly which substance is the culprit.
- Wash gently and moisturize.You’ve heard this before, and it’s the standard recommendation. When you wash your hands, use lukewarm water and a gentle fragrance-free cleanser. Blot–don’t rub–your hands dry, and apply a moisturizer immediately.
- Moisturize frequently.The most effective moisturizers are the thick, greasy ointments and creams. You want a higher oil-to-water ratio. Many sufferers swear by coconut oil and olive oil.
- Wear gloves.Wear clean white cotton gloves whenever possible. If your fingertips are unaffected, you can cut the tips off the glove so you have a little more dexterity. If you’re going to be cleaning or working in the kitchen or garden, put non-latex waterproof gloves on over the cotton ones. (The latex in rubber gloves can cause allergic reactions.)
Reducing the itch, lessening the discomfort
Sometimes, no matter what you do, you end up with cracked, itchy hands. There are various ways to lessen the discomfort of eczema.
- Stop the itch with alcohol.You’d think that alcohol would be the last thing you want to put on dry, cracked hands. Generally, that’s true. But if your hands are itching so much that you can’t keep from scratching them, alcohol may do the trick. Various patient-support sites mention it, even if it’s not officially sanctioned. It’s simple: Gently wipe your hand with alcohol–ideally, with an alcohol swab. (Yes, it will sting if you have broken skin.) Let it dry, and then apply moisturizer. The alcohol helps remove the itch.
- Use a cold compress.Another way to lessen the itch and soothe the irritation is to gently press an icepack–or even a package of frozen peas, wrapped in a soft cloth–into your palm.
- Apply apple cider vinegar.This classic home remedy seems to be used everywhere except in the doctor’s office. Some people find that it relieves the symptoms of eczema. Just mix one part water, one part vinegar and apply with a cotton ball. Pat dry and moisturize.
- Use hydrocortisone:Hydrocortisone, available over the counter, is usually the first remedy a healthcare professional will recommend. If that’s not strong enough, he or she might write a prescription for corticosteroids. These can reduce inflammation and itching, which promotes healing.
- Consider a bleach bath.Using a bleach bath to treat skin infections isn’t anything new. Eczema isn’t an infection, but this approach works for some people. Not only is it frequently mentioned on patient sites–even the Mayo Clinic endorses it–but they recommend talking to your physician first. You don’t need to take a full bath. Just fill a large container with lukewarm water, and add a teaspoon or two of bleach (undiluted!) for each gallon. Soak the affected hand for about 10 minutes. Rinse, pat dry and apply moisturizer.
Taking care of yourself
As we’re learning about with so many health conditions, stress can play a role in eczema. Stress can be a trigger, research suggests, so it follows that reducing stress–perhaps through meditation–can help. Again, it’s easier said than done.
Yes, hand eczema is a pain–literally and figuratively. And sometimes, nothing you do will relieve the itch, discomfort or the annoyance. But you can take control. Just don’t scratch.
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