Concerns about the downside of exposure to the sun’s rays seem to be everywhere these days, and while such worries are certainly not without foundation, and people should always use SPF to protect themselves, it is crucial to keep in mind that sunlight is also good for our health. A recent study has discovered that the symptoms of eczema can be reduced by exposure to sunlight, a finding that could open up a whole new array of methods by which to treat one of the most common skin problems in the United Kingdom.
Eczema – what is it?
Eczema is a skin condition, also referred to as atopic dermatitis, which affects a large proportion of the population and is characterised by patches of skin that become inflamed and itchy. Eczema is particularly common in babies and children, often materialising on infants’ faces, but teenagers and adults can also be afflicted, with eczema striking behind the knees and inside the elbows. Atopic dermatitis affects both sexes equally, and can in some rare instances first occur during puberty or even adulthood.
Types of eczema
Although atopic dermatitis is normally the condition to which people refer when they are talking about eczema, which is both the most chronic and most common form of the condition, there are a number of other types of eczema, including:
• contact dermatitis
• nummular dermatitis
• dyshidrotic dermatitis
• seborrhoeic dermatitis
Contact dermatitis is the result of contact with some sort of irritant which can cause burning, redness and itching. When the irritant is taken away the inflammation will also subside. Nummular dermatitis, which affects men more than women, generally strikes on the legs in the winter months, causing round, dry patches of skin.
Dyshidrotic dermatitis, which affects women more than men, can appear on the soles of the feet and the palm of the hands as well as the fingers, resulting in scaly, itchy skin patches that become red, painful, cracked and flaky. Seborrhoeic dermatitis is responsible for red, scaly, itchy rashes that materialise on the scalp, the eyelids, the eyebrows, and on both sides of the nose.
It is still not fully understood exactly what causes eczema, but it is believed that the condition is a consequence of an overactive immune system responding to the presence of irritants in a very aggressive manner. An abnormal response to bodily proteins can also cause eczema, with the immune system becoming unable to distinguish between the proteins of an invader, such as viruses or bacteria, or the normal proteins that are a natural part of the body, thus resulting in inflammation. When one or several symptoms of eczema suddenly appear on the body, this is known as an eczema flare-up, and common triggers of this include:
• chemicals that dry the skin which are found in detergent and cleaning products
• synthetic fabrics
• a sudden fall in the humidity level
• food allergies
• an upper respiratory infection
• scratchy, rough material such as wool
• an increase in body temperature
• changes in temperature
• animal dander
The new research
In the new study University of Edinburgh researchers performed tests on healthy volunteers and found that nitric oxide was released into the bloodstream when a small area of skin was exposed to UV light, dampening inflammation and causing a reduction of symptoms in eczema patients such as itchiness. Dr Anne Astier, the lead researcher on the project, says that the new findings imply that there are powerful anti-inflammatory properties to nitric oxide, potentially offering a new avenue of treatment for eczema sufferers.
The condition affects one in twenty adults and one in five children in the United Kingdom, and scientists believe that new therapies could result from the discovery, with the intention being to mimic the impact of the sun’s rays but without its adverse side-effects. People suffering from severe forms of eczema often make use of tanning lamps as a way to cope with symptoms, but this can result in other, even more serious, issues including accelerated ageing, skin burning and an increase in the risk of cancer. The University of Edinburgh’s senior dermatology lecturer, Professor Richard Weller, says that science is just starting to discover that vitamin D is only the beginning of the sun’s health benefits.