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Can Natural Remedies Help Calm Eczema?

Some people prefer to treat their itchy, red eczema with natural remedies rather than steroid creams or immune-suppresssing ointments.

Eczema, also termed “atopic dermatitis,” is a common skin condition that frequently makes people miserable. It’s considered an inflammatory condition and is more common among people with allergies. Consequently, some people find that avoiding eczema triggers can help a great deal. Doctors often prescribe steroid creams or lotions. The next step is often a medication to suppress the immune system such as tacrolimus (Protopic) or pimecrolimus (Elidel). Such strong medications can lead to serious side effects in some cases. As a result, sufferers may well wish for other ways to help calm eczema.

Natural Approaches to Help Calm Eczema:

Q. I have eczema. My dermatologist has prescribed topical medications like hydrocortisone for at least ten years. Despite this, the patches are getting out of control.

I’ve heard that there is no cure for eczema, but I hope that there is a natural remedy that would clear the patches up. The topical medications and shampoos for eczema on the scalp are very pricey and don’t work very well. I do not even want to go outside in warm weather because the patches look horrible.

A. Eczema, often associated with red, itchy patches of dry skin, appears to be more common in people with allergies. Doctors suspect that eczema results from an overreactive immune system. As we note below, youngsters who get antibiotics early in their lives may end up with immune systems more inclined to allergies or atopic dermatitis. While powerful prescription drugs can help calm eczema, some people have reported that supplements or home remedies can also be helpful.

info iconMedical Consensus Advisory

Eczema or atopic dermatitis may be known as "the itch that rashes." The itching often begins before the sin becomes red and irritated due to scratching. While it is most common in babies, it can last well into adulthood. Atopic dermatitis is frequently treated with topical steroid creams, but since these can thin the skin, they cannot be used continuously. Immune-suppressing creams such as tacrolimus (Protopic) or pimecrolimus (Elidel) can help calm eczema, but worries about the potential that they might trigger cancer limit their use in very young children. A different immune-calming ointment, crisaborole (Eucrisa) was approved by the FDA a few years ago. Just this spring, FDA approved dupilumab (Dupixent) to treat moderate to severe eczema in teenagers. This drug is administered as an injection and can cause serious allergic reactions and eye inflammation.

Can Supplements Help Calm Eczema?

Q. Today I read your column about a person with eczema. I have had total body eczema my whole life until I started taking flaxseed oil capsules. They contain linoleic acid which we people with atopic dermatitis need.

My skin has been clear on flaxseed oil. It has had no side effects and it’s cheap.

Essential Fatty Acids for Eczema:

A. Flaxseed oil does contain some linoleic acid, but it is especially rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These are essential fatty acids that play a crucial role in skin health (Horrobin, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Jan. 2000).

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Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is an inflammatory skin condition that shows up as redness, itching, dryness and thickened sensitive patches. Research in mice that have a similar skin problem shows that fermented flaxseed oil can reduce inflammation and ease the symptoms of redness, swelling and itching (Yang et al, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Jan. 19, 2017). So far as we know, humans using flaxseed oil supplements are not taking it in fermented form.

Evening primrose oil and hempseed oil provide gamma-linolenic acid, which also appears to be helpful (Timoszuk et al, Antioxidants, Aug. 14, 2018; Calloway et al, Journal of Dermatological Treatment, April, 2005). The scientists suggest that a balance of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) supplied by these supplements might be helpful. In addition, one study decades ago found that people who drank about a quart of oolong tea daily saw significant improvement in their severe eczema (Uehara et al, Archives of Dermatology, Jan. 2001). Although we have seen no further studies of this approach, several readers have reported benefit.

Other Remedies That Can Help Calm Eczema:

A review of research acknowledges that many people would prefer natural approaches (Fenner & Silverberg, Clinical Dermatology, Sep-Oct. 2018). It suggests, however, that “the safest and most effective natural agents are topically applied emollients”–oils and creams applied to the skin to moisturize the dry spots. Some people with eczema have found that Noxzema moisturizer can be helpful. That name is rumored to come from the phrase “knock out eczema.” Other options include CeraVe Moisturizing Cream or CamoCare Soothing Cream. Some patients choose coconut or sunflower seed oil as topical moisturizers, and these also may help calm eczema (Karagounis et al, Pediatric Dermatology, Jan. 2019).

Can You Prevent Eczema and Allergies?

No one knows why allergies like hay fever and eczema have become more common in many industrialized countries. But some researchers may have an idea. Their research seems to support the “Hygiene Hypothesis.”

Could Early Antibiotics Increase the Likelihood of Allergies and Eczema?

An analysis of 22 studies conducted over five decades sheds some light on recent increases in allergies and eczema. Doctors have been enthusiastically prescribing antibiotics to children for ear infections, acne and other common conditions without understanding that this might change the ecology of the digestive tract. These bacteria influence the development of our immune system.

Children Who Get More Antibiotics Are More Likely to Develop Allergies:

Researchers in the Netherlands linked early use of antibiotics to a greater risk of eczema and hay fever. The more often young children received a prescription for antibiotics the more likely they were to have allergies later in life. They presented these findings in 2016 but have not published them.

Such associations cannot prove causation, but we are learning that disrupting the microbiome of the digestive tract may have unforeseen consequences. Other investigators have found that the microbiome has a significant impact on conditions such as atopic dermatitis (Ficara eta l, Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, Sep. 10, 2018; Slattery et al, Clinical Medicine Insights. Pediatrics, Oct. 9, 2016).

Since pediatricians are now striving to reduce antibiotic prescribing so as not to increase antibiotic resistance in the germs that make kids sick, there may be data in a few years to show whether this tactic also helps lower the probability of eczema or hay fever as the youngster grows up.

Learn More:

You can learn more about natural approaches for eczema, dry skin and other common ailments in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Horrobin, "Essential fatty acid metabolism and its modification in atopic eczema." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Jan. 2000. DOI: 10.1093/ajcn/71.1.367s
  • Yang et al, "Therapeutic effects of fermented flax seed oil on NC/Nga mice with atopic dermatitis-like skin lesions." Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Jan. 19, 2017. doi: 10.1155/2017/5469125
  • Timoszuk et al, "Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) biological activity dependent on chemical composition." Antioxidants, online Aug. 14, 2018. doi: 10.3390/antiox7080108
  • Callaway et al, "Efficacy of dietary hempseed oil in patients with atopic dermatitis." Journal of Dermatological Treatment, April 2005. DOI: 10.1080/09546630510035832
  • Uehara et al, "A trial of oolong tea in the management of recalcitrant atopic dermatitis." Archives of Dermatology, Jan. 2001.
  • Fenner & Silverberg, "Oral supplements in atopic dermatitis." Clinical Dermatology, Sep-Oct. 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.clindermatol.2018.05.010
  • Ficara et al, "Changes of intestinal microbiota in early life." Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, online Sep. 10, 2018. doi: 10.1080/14767058.2018.1506760
  • Slattery et al, "The significance of the enteric microbiome on the development of childhood disease: A review of prebiotic and probiotic therapies in disorders of childhood." Clinical Medicine Insights. Pediatrics, Oct. 9, 2016. DOI: 10.4137/CMPed.S38338
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