My Battle with Eczema

Since my birth I have been in a long battle with Eczema. My mum once told me that she didn’t get a full night sleep until I was 4 years old because of my constant crying in despair. When I think back to my earliest years, I have a strong sense of incredible discomfort. My childhood was scarred by my ill health. Today I take for granted all the little procedures and precautions I now automatically do to help limit Eczema from ruining my life, but as a child I had not yet learned how to do this and suffered in silence.

Scratching, scratching, scratching!
I regularly scratched myself to the point of bleeding as a child. My legs, backs of knees, arms and face were the usual areas. When your skin is so incredibly itchy and inflamed, it just feels so good to scratch and keep scratching despite the blood. Even as an adult I continue to battle with this but as a child, you have no idea what’s going on and the damage you are doing. Continual scratching and bleeding results in thin skin which is then even easier to break and become infected. 

Allergies are often the trigger. I love animals and as a child we had dogs and cats but a simple stroke of my pet with my hand and then touching my face was all it took to start the reaction. My face becomes itchy, I scratch, it swells and goes puffy. I get more and more agitated and stressed. It’s horrible. Some people say the answer is to remove your pets, your lawn, the sun and just about anything else that can set off an allergy. I disagree. You cannot stop the world and live in a sterile environment.
The real answer is to teach a child why an allergic reaction happens. I eventually discovered that touching pets was ok as long as I immediately wash my hands afterwards, something I do religiously today and the reward and love of a pet is worth this extra hassle.

Teenage Years

By the time I was a teenager I’d gathered some of this knowledge to limit allergy outbreaks but sometimes things would get the better of me. I remember one day at school, I must have been 13 or so, we were out on the sports field on a summer’s day when I touched the grass and then my face and the itching started. Within half an hour my face was so agitated, red raw and swollen I looked not unlike the elephant man. I had to be sent home.

Dry skin around my face started as I became a teenager. I was given moisturisers which made my teenage acne worse. It resulted in bad skin and a cause for a great deal of embarrassment for this particular teenager. Doctors gave me an ointment to put on my face at night. This certainly helped keep my itchiness and redness of my face under control but I later discovered the ointment contained steroids which have permanently damaged my facial skin.

My later teenage years were more about my face and appearance. The Eczema was fairly controlled around the rest of my body so I just lived and got on with it. Flare ups happened but I was well used to that by now!

Eczema Attacks Big Time!

By my twenties I had eczema under control. It never went away but I felt it wasn’t taking over my life and I could live with it. Apart from the occasional flare up behind the knees and elbows my suffering was minimal. However, when I was 28 I moved from the south of England to the rather damp west of Ireland. At first I was fine but I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught that hit me within the next few years. It started with a few patches here and there but then I developed Eczema on parts of my body I had never experienced before. My feet, back, belly, armpits, groin and head. It was stubborn Eczema and at times my whole body was red raw. I was so uncomfortable that I became depressed. My foot, for example, had an open wound for two years, it would not heal!

Fight back!

The first port of call was to the doctors. I was prescribed the usual steroids. I was determined I didn’t want to use steroids but I was so uncomfortable I’d give anything a try. Steroid creams did help to calm my symptoms for a day or two but then, just as I thought I was on the mend, it would flare up again. I suffered like this for a couple of years or so and on a returning visit to the doctor she suggested I see a private dermatologist.
It cost me €150 for an appointment. When the specialist doctor examined me she said my skin was infected so badly I should go straight to hospital to spend a week recovering. I couldn’t do that as I was self employed. I had a business to run and taking a week out was not an option. So she prescribed me a shopping trolley of drugs.

Gut trouble
When I raised the subject of diet to my private dermatologist doctor it was totally dismissed. I was basically told this is how it is and you must use the prescribed drugs to control it. In Ireland, being self employed, you had to pay for the drugs and we were talking hundreds of euros a month! I hate to say it but I think the whole thing is a racket and I really don’t have much faith in GP’s and much of the thinking behind modern medicine. Of course it’s not all bad but in my case, I passionately believe the mainstream thinking about things like eczema is completely clueless. 

It was some months later that I went to the pharmacy to collect my prescription when a very kind lady, who could clearly see how distressed I was, lent me a book about the gut.
The book made so much sense to me. Basically your gut or colon is where all nutrients are absorbed into the body. If you have an imbalance of bad bacteria such as yeast or candida you’re going to absorb the waste of these bugs which is highly toxic. I believe the result comes out in my skin as eczema.
So what’s going on? Well you have heard about probiotics I hope? These good bacteria live in our guts and help us to digest food, fight disease and keep us functioning in good health. Bad bacteria such as yeast don’t get on well with the good guys and will try to take over. Anyone who knows about wine or beer making, or indeed any alcohol brewing will tell you that you feed the yeast with sugar, the byproduct is alcohol. I often used to wonder why I would wake up in the morning sometimes feeling like I have a hangover when I hadn’t had a drink the night before! 
So we feed the yeast with sugar, we add more yeast with the intake of bread and other products that clog up our system. Before you know it you’re out of balance and overrun with bad bacteria. Of course, this is quite normal for a lot of people who may or may not have any negative effects but I believe the gut and our diet can be directly related to many health conditions, not just eczema.

The Weapons:

Exercise
I wouldn’t be one to play sports or indeed partake in much physical activity but I made the decision when I was 34 to join a gym. I live in a rural area and it’s about a 30 min drive to get to the gym but I’ve managed to stick at it. I’m not into all that pushing myself to the limits or hanging out with the hard lads who weight lift and grow their muscles, I just wanted to be toned and feel better about myself.
I’ve found two or three gym visits a week doing 30-40 minutes is enough to maintain my fitness levels. I do try and go for a walk a couple of times a week too but that is more for mental reasons. I don’t enjoy pushing my body physically but my time at the gym is manageable and if I put on some funky sounds or listen to a podcast it makes the exercise easier. What I’ve noticed is my body holds itself up better. My posture is improved and my back problems ease. My energy levels are up and my immune system is increased. This is so important for eczema sufferers so I can’t stress enough that doing some regular exercise a few times a week is one of your best weapons to fight eczema.
Sweating is also important. I believe that sweating not only clears out the toxins lurking beneath your skin but also the salt in sweat kills any surface bacteria and cleanses your body. Of course sweating can also start the itching process. It’s important to find the right balance but do experiment with sweating, I think it can do more good than harm.

Food
Altering your diet can be one of the hardest changes but it’s really about re-training yourself to listen to your body and learning what foods to avoid and limit. It takes time, practice and commitment but for me, diet is a major cause of my eczema. Your first port of call should be to cut out all sugar. I found this particularly hard because I have a sweet tooth but if I can do it anyone can. My biggest intake of sugar was actually tea. I would take two spoonfuls of sugar in my tea and maybe have at least 6 cups a day. That’s a lot of sugar before I had any biscuits, cakes or chocolate. Make a commitment to yourself to give it up for a trial period. The first few days will be hard as you fight the urges of addiction but if your eczema is bad enough you’ll do it.

Next on the list to cut out is dairy. This includes cheese, butter and cow’s milk. I switched to goat’s milk in my tea. At the first I thought it was disgusting and tasted like a farmyard but after a day I couldn’t tell the difference. Now I only drink goat’s milk and find it far more nutritious and yummy. It’s sweeter than cow’s milk too so that goes well in my tea that I now take without all that sugar. Goat’s milk is naturally homogenised. This means the fat is evenly dispersed where as cow’s milk isn’t. In the old days you used to get cow’s milk from the milkman and the fat would separate and be at the top of the bottle. Nowadays it’s almost impossible to buy un homogenised cow’s milk. They homogenise it by firing the milk through high powered jets which break apart the fat cell. That process releases free radicals. Do some research! 
Bread is a major problem to be avoided because of its yeast content, additives and added sugar. Remember yeast feeds on sugar!!!
So you want to replace your bread intake with either a non yeast substitute such as soda bread or better still, make you own bread with Spelt flour. Spelt is a traditional grain grown back in the day before modern alternatives. It is much lower in gluten. Gluten is your enemy so avoid too much bread or heavy starchy foods. 
You can also get other spelt products from the health food shop such as Spelt Pasta, Crackers and more. Rice substitute products are also on your option list so do some shopping and try these alternatives.

You’re going to need to cut out all processed foods. I also recommend you stop eating too much meat. Cut out red meat. If you’re eating chicken buy free range or organic. Honestly, do not eat that value, cheaply produced factory farmed meat. Not only is it disgusting and cruel, it’s full of a cocktail of chemicals.
I used to eat meat every day. If it wasn’t on my plate, I wasn’t happy. Since I changed my diet I now see meat as a treat not a necessity. Something to be enjoyed and appreciated. I’ll eat meat/fish perhaps two or three times a week. Red meat perhaps once or twice a month.
I’ve noticed that if I have meat consecutively for a few days I begin to crave it. Yet if I go without it for a few days I no longer crave it. Think about your gut and all that meat hanging around in there undigested for days. Remember, you’re aiming for a healthy gut!
Try using beans and pulses as an alternative or meaty vegetables like Aubergine. Ultimately though you are aiming to have clean, easy to digest food. 

When I changed my diet I saw a massive improvement with my eczema within one week. Try and do it for a month. Once you have cleared your system you can begin to reintroduce some things and your body will be able to tolerate a treat. We all fancy a dirty burger now and then and if our system is healthy most of the time we can cope with it occasionally.

Steroids
Unlike doctors, I don’t believe steroids should be used daily. I accept there are times when they are needed but you need to find the cause of the eczema so don’t ignore it just it by treating the symptoms.
I’ve talked about my causes but you may be different. It’s taken me years to reach this point and I’m still not cured. Steroids come in many different strengths. If you are using them regularly ask your doctor for a less strong version. Use that for a while and then work your way down. Keep the stronger ones for major flare ups. Eventually you should be able to get your steroid use down to perhaps a couple of times a week and hopefully much much less. My goal is to stop using them completely but I’m not there yet. Just be aware that they damage your skin and should be used cautiously.

When I went to see the private doctor she prescribed something called Pro Topic. I’d never heard of this ointment before. It works in a similar way to steroids but it does not thin the skin. Now, I should mention it’s not been on the market that long and there are some scare stories out there.
I first used it on my face. I put it on and within an hour my face felt really hot and agitated. I scratched and rubbed all night thinking this was awful and I won’t be using it again. The following morning I looked at my face and couldn’t believe it. It was like I had new skin. My complexion was the clearest it had been for years!
I’m on the fence about protopic. I still use it occasionally. Only on my face and no more than a pea sized amount. It clears my skin, makes me feel more confident but I’m uncertain if its causing further damage. Like steroids, it’s one of your weapons but always use it sparingly and aim to reduce its use over time.

Moisturisers.
It has to be said that heavy use of moisturisers is a must for eczema sufferers. I find bathing with a few caps of baby oil and a good helping of emollient in the bath can help. At the end of the bath, take some of the emollient and cover yourself with it. You’ll need to top up throughout the day. 
I read an article that said you should use a heavy dose of moisturiser several times a day for several days. The theory is that it will give your skin a chance to recover. You can then begin to reduce your use. I need to bath/shower every day because of my skin. If I don’t, I feel agitated and very uncomfortable. This has actually caused a negative affect in my life. It’s stopped me from nights away because I was unsure of what the bathing facilities would be. It’s become quite a psychological issue for me. If you are able to go a couple of days without showering, you’re probably in a good position. Showering washes away all the natural oils in our skin.

Another moisturise to get in your arsenal is Aveno Menthol. Whenever I have a flare up or really itchy spot and I can’t stop scratching I use this. It really does help shut down the itchiness. Try it!

Once your body has restored to a more normal state you can reduce the creams. I still use them on my face but the rest of my body isn’t too bad when I’m in good health.

Water
I can’t tell you enough to drink a lot of good quality water. At least 3 pints a day!
But take a while to do some research on water. It’s essential that you drink quality water. Tap water isn’t quality water. Its full of chlorine. If I gave you a glass of water and added some bleach would you drink it? Invest in a water filter. I installed one. It cost €200 and came with two ceramic filters that lasted a year. Replacement filters are around €25 which lasts for one year if you clean them a few times. These are ceramic filters. A cheaper alternative is the Brita Jug solutions. I recently picked one up for a UK visit for £10, the filters last 1 month and aren’t too expensive.
I couldn’t believe the difference in the water quality after I fitted the filter. It just felt pure and healthy.

I’m leaning towards the change of country and indeed water quality as a major cause of my eczema flare up. Whenever I go to someone else’s house and have a cup of tea or glass of water I can taste and smell the chlorine in it. Most people don’t notice it, like a smoker doesn’t notice their own smell but it really does stink. Don’t put that shit in your body, regardless of whether you have eczema or not because it’s important to remember we are mostly made of water.

So that’s my story. Besides Eczema I also struggled with Asthma from childhood, but’s that’s a whole other story!

6 comments

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Rob Thurston (1 year ago)

Love it Paul. I now have IBS, and in recent years have stopped taking a cocktail of drugs (prescribed) in favour of a Fodmap diet (Google it). It has made such a difference that I now forget that I even have it, until I stray from the diet once in a while. I do a lot of exercise now, mostly hillwalking and running around with the kids. I enjoyed reading your blog. Hope it’s going well up your end (oh I say!) Rob.

    Paul Burgess (1 year ago)

    Hey mate, thanks for reading. Glad you got your IBS under control. I’m hearing the same story over and over again, the answers are diet not doctor’s drugs. Hope you and the family are keeping well x

Libby (1 year ago)

Your story is so similar to my partners. And I love that you discussed the gut issues. He had eczema his whole life, and was on steroids for 16. But now he is healed and doesn’t have any drugs- just works on gut health etc. I documented his healing in the blog above 🙂

    Paul Burgess (1 year ago)

    Thanks for commenting, Libby. So pleased your parter has also found the answer in the gut. I’ve bookmarked your blog and will be reading about his story.

Alan (1 year ago)

Hi Bruv

Just came across your post and thought I had to say something, what a read!, I was quite transfixed by your story, glad things are on the up, have been trying to eat healthier for a number of years, not that’s it’s easy in Jakarta, I really don’t trust when it say organic here, it’s all marketing not the real deal, still hopefully out of here pretty soon, then can follow your lead ?

    Paul Burgess (1 year ago)

    Yeah bruv, Oz must have some of the best produce in the world, you’ll have no excuse 🙂 Can’t wait for you to be somewhere you really want to be x

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