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Allergy

28 June 2018

Different skin allergies – causes and treatments

Every day millions of people around the world are affected by skin allergies. Some occur at random, whereas others may be a sign of a bigger problem.

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Skin allergies affect the lives of millions of people around the world. While most are not fatal or painful, these allergies do impact the quality of life of patients.

Skin allergies occur when the immune system responds to an allergen. Sometimes the immune system incorrectly identifies substances or even parts of the body as a threat, causing an allergic skin reaction to occur.

Here is a breakdown of a number of skin allergies:

Eczema

What is it?

Eczema occurs when the skin doesn't retain enough moisture and becomes dry, itchy and inflamed. The skin is also scaly and cracked. Eczema is commonly found in the creases of the arms and legs. This chronic skin allergy goes through periods of flare-ups and remissions. Many people are born with the skin condition as a result of genetics, or develop it during early childhood. This may be due to exposure to harmful chemicals or allergens. While most children outgrow their eczema, some retain it throughout adulthood.

arm with eczema

Treatment

Eczema can be treated by supplying the skin with sufficient moisture. Making sure the skin is clean and not scratching the infected area assists with the treatment of the allergy. Topical creams, steroid creams, cortisone creams and emollients help to heal the affected skin.

According to Robert Sidbury, chief of dermatology at the Seattle Children's Hospital, research shows that eczema has several coexisting ailments such as hay fever and asthma. It has also been found that children with eczema are more likely to develop ADHD.

Dermatographia

What is it?

Dermatographia is a rare skin allergy that occurs in about 5% of people. Dermatographia or "skin writing", according to Dr Adrian Morris, principal allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics, occurs when the mast cells in the skin produce too much histamine. The histamine is released with any form of stimulation or pressure applied to the skin. What results is inflammation and itchiness of the skin. The reaction can be identified as white or red inflamed lines on the skin. Dermatologist Dr Amanda Oakley states that the cause of dermatographia is unknown but in some cases may be an allergic reaction to a foreign substance.

woman scratching her back


Treatment

In some cases dermatographia lasts only a year or two, while in others it carries on indefinitely. It is not harmful or fatal and rarely involves any pain. The allergy may be treated with antihistamine medication or applying a cold compress to the area to reduce swelling. 

Hives

What is it?

Similar to dermatographia, hives or urticaria is a skin allergy that produces raised wheals in the skin. These wheals may vary in size; they are accompanied by itchiness and commonly occur on the arms and legs. The body produces these hives when the mast cells of the skin produce too much histamine. However, when large amounts of chemicals are released by these cells to combat the allergen, fluid leaks into the blood stream, which may cause anaphylaxis.

hives skin allergy


Treatment

As in the case of dermatographia, hives may be treated with antihistamine medication as well as steroid medication. Some relief may be provided by not scratching the affected area. A cold compress works too. Avoiding alcohol and junk food may also assist with the reduction of breakouts. A recent study shows that medication, normally used for asthma, may be used to treat this skin allergy.

Heat rash

What is it?

Heat rash occurs when the skin is exposed to warm temperatures but the sweat ducts are blocked and unable to release sweat. Also known as prickly heat, the blocking of sweat ducts causes inflammation of the skin and the formation of red, itchy bumps. A study shows that the blocking of sweat ducts is due to a biofilm, produced by the Staphylococcus bacteria that are found on the skin. Heat rash may occur in both summer and winter. It is also common in babies as a result of being overdressed or underdeveloped pores. Heat rash is not contagious.

woman scratching her neck


Treatment

Heat rash usually goes away by itself. Keeping the body cool and avoiding any friction or tight fitting clothing will help with this skin allergy. Staying out of the sun also helps reduce inflammation. Try to avoid scented body lotions and scrubs as these may irritate the skin.  

Image credit: iStock

 

Ask the Expert

Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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