October 2020

Eczema is a common and debilitating disease…”

This is how I start a lot of the presentations that I give about my PhD. It’s a standard approach in academic talks; trying to explain to the audience why your research is not just interesting in itself but why it’s important, what the impact can be. I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what eczema was. I was very wrong.

I have had a very mild form of eczema for as long as I can remember. When I’m stressed, I get slightly itchy, red eyelids. It could get quite sore, but I’ve never needed to see a GP about it. Pharmacist recommendations were always sufficient to keep it at bay. In all honesty, the appearance of it was my biggest issue and lucky for me, red eyeshadow has been in style in recent years. This is how the majority of people experience eczema – in patches across the body, they develop a little bit of redness, a little bit of itching. A lot of people experiencing some form of the disease raises awareness of it, which is positive, but it can also make use think that that’s as bad as it gets.

Every so often, there are stories in the UK media about really severe eczema cases. I read these articles and I find myself redoubling my efforts in the lab; they act to remind me why I am doing the research that I do. But when I developed really severe eczema myself, it put my work on hold. Ironic, I know.

When lockdown struck, I was in the Netherlands, learning to build skin models from small amounts of cells. I had to come back to the UK very suddenly and say goodbye in a rush. Maybe it was the stress of having to run home, or the emerging pandemic itself, but my skin went into collapse. I had bacterial infections in both corners of my mouth and the usual rash on my eyelids spread to the rest of my face. It became infected, which spread into my eyes (I developed conjunctivitis), which would then reinfect my skin. My eyes were constantly swollen, I couldn’t see very well, and the itching was insufferable. So, my PhD was paused. 

Due to the delicate nature of the skin around the eyes and face, I was concerned about using steroid cream. However, with supervision from my GP and short-term use, it could be both safe and effective. At the same time, I was using quite a broad, scattered approach, with weekly Epsom salt baths, applying moisturisers as often as I could, taking general antibiotics and taking vitamin supplements.

I am one of the very lucky ones. My skin eventually recovered, with the worst of it only lasting about two months. Too many patients can’t say the same and live with their severe eczema for years, having gone through every treatment option available and not finding anything that works. I can’t imagine how hopeless that feels. Now that my skin is no longer making me want to scream, I have started research again.

Work around the world is ongoing to not only find new therapies but to fully understand the disease. We are funded by the British Skin Foundation to find out how a better understanding of skin barrier function could help eczema treatment. I hope that someday soon, the scattered approach to severe eczema is no longer the norm.

Jennifer Shelley
PhD Student

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Read more about Jennifer’s British Skin Foundation-funded eczema research here.

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