WARNING: Graphic content.
For most Australians, bundling up in cosy winter layers is just part and parcel of getting through the colder months. But for Leilah Johnson, and more than a million other Aussies, winter can be torture.
Leilah has been covered in eczema for most of her life. The debilitating condition makes her skin so dry and delicate it rips and oozes when she dresses.
A recent flare-up was so bad, the 20-year-old had to quit her retail job and is basically housebound – studying Youth Work at TAFE online – because “it’s more comfortable for me to be at home”.
“I have to cover myself in creams every hour because I’m always so dry and if I don‘t, it cracks and bleeds and gets gross,” she said.
“This cold snap has made it even worse, and it gets so bad, my face swells and my eyelids can get bright red and swollen. I also have it on my back … My lips sometimes get so blistered I’ve woken up and they’re stuck together.”
Leilah’s skin gets so bad she has been hospitalised several times in the past few years, and despite seeing a specialist every few months and trying a whole host of treatments, says her skin “always feels like sandpaper”.
“I hate to think how much I’ve spent on creams and treatments over the years,” she said, adding that even moisturisers – a basic eczema treatment – have been useless because she’s “allergic to most of them”.
“One time I went to a medical appointment, my skin was a bit clearer and I felt (like I was) brushed off. I’ve walked out crying on occasion.
“Ninety per cent of the time, (my skin is) horrendous and looks terrible.”
Leilah is not alone in her struggles; in fact, Australia has one of the highest incidences of eczema in the world.
An estimated 1.6 million people across the country live with eczema, but the latest figures show nearly one-third of Australians will suffer from the skin condition at some stage in their lives.
The Eczema Association of Australia (EAA) found more than half of current eczema sufferers describe their condition as “chronic”, and 72 per cent say weather is the biggest trigger for flare ups.
Winter can be particularly hard, as the temperature drops due to cold, dry air, and the skin either being exposed to the elements or overheating due to the extra layers, heating and electric blankets.
Melody Livingstone, CEO and founder of skincare brand MooGoo which specialises in treating sensitive skin and conditions like eczema, says she has seen a dramatic rise in the number of people buying skin treatments.
She said sales of MooGoo eczema creams and hand moisturisers have shot up by 80-90 per cent, and orders have doubled compared to what they were this time last year. She said the brand was selling an eczema cream “every two minutes”.
“Despite eczema becoming more common, there’s still surprisingly little understanding around how to manage it,” Ms Livingstone said, noting the impact of the skin conditions is “largely underestimated and suffering … takes a huge toll”.
Studies have shown adults with atopic dermatitis are up to three times as likely to have depression.
Leilah said her condition has seriously affected her confidence, it is difficult to cover when most products irritate her skin, and has stopped her going to the gym, because sweat causes flare-ups.
“So I have to work out which is more important and the lesser evil: losing weight, but even worse skin,” she said.
“While I’ve not had many negative comments, people do stare. And when they comment or suggest what I should do – I know they’re trying to help – but it’s frustrating and overwhelming as they don’t understand … I’ve tried everything.”
Because there is no proven cure for eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis, education and symptom management is critical – especially as Australia quickly plunges into winter.
Experts recommend keeping eczema-prone skin moist with fragrance-free, oil-based moisturisers as well as avoiding harsh soaps, extreme heat and cold – including too-hot or too-long showers – and eating a diet rich in vitamin A, E, and omega-3 fatty acids as a way to manage the condition.
It is also important to consult a healthcare professional if symptoms persist, and to identify any potential triggers to the skin condition.