Adolescence and young adulthood can be a time of self-doubt and body image issues. For those living with a skin condition, these insecurities are intensified.
Atopic eczema is a hereditary skin disease that causes inflammation of the skin leaving it dry and prone to infection. For 75% of children eczema clears before the teenage years, according to UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science.
Unfortunately, others suffer from eczema well into their teens and later. Sorcha, aged 21, is one of those people. She has chronic atopic dermatitis since she was six months old. Her skin has dry scaly patches, particularly at her joints. If the skin is very dry it can ooze or bleed.
At 21, Sorcha is experiencing a flare up of eczema: “I’ve got a bit that’s growing under my foot at the moment. Socks are sticking to me and it’s sore to walk.” There are many factors that worsen it. “Stress is a big thing for me,” she says. Animal hair is another trigger.
Growing up with Eczema was tough for Sorcha. “When I was really young I didn’t realise I was different at all.” But when she got to primary school she experienced a lot of bullying. “The first thing they’d ask was is it catching.” The taunting got so bad she had to change school.
She grew in confidence as she entered her teens and started wearing t-shirts and skirts at age 13. But she still experienced bullying in secondary school, which affected her self-image. ‘How are the lads going to find me attractive with all this?’ she asked herself.
Sorcha feels a constant itch from the eczema affected areas of her body and the urge to scratch is tough to resist. “People say to me in a condescending way ‘stop scratching’… they don’t realise how much it hurts when I don’t scratch.” She would like to see more support services for young people with skin conditions.
Another genetic skin condition is psoriasis. According to the Irish Skin Foundation it affects over 100,000 people in Ireland. Michael, in his 20s, experienced a bad breakout in early 2013. One day he noticed some itchy spots on his torso after showering. Just over a week the spots had spread all around his torso, his armpits, on his back and arms. Soon it was on his lower body.
“I thought there was no end in sight and that I would be disfigured especially as some spots reached my face,” he says.
Michael went to the GP and was diagnosed with Guttate psoriasis. This form of psoriasis causes small drop like pink spots to form on the skin and is less common than plaque psoriasis. He was prescribed a three week course of penicillin. Michael had to make changes to his diet and use medicated moisturiser.
He became aware of the factors that bring on psoriasis. “It’s exacerbated by stress, alcohol, bad diet and intense exercise.” Michael had to stop going to the gym while he had the break out as Guttate [soriasis is worsened by sweat. Apart from these measures, all he could do was wait for the outbreak to clear.
“Your confidence is at an all-time low,” says Michael “It’s the mental things that brought me to my knees. I thought it would get worse and worse.” He did get support and advice from his family and friends but he suggests counselling to anyone very upset.
Both Michael and Sorcha have learnt to manage their skin condition. Michael’s flare up of psoriasis has cleared. He’s returned to the gym. “I will be better educated and prepared mentally for a ‘next time’” he says. His advice to others is to “be patient and keep yourself from panicking”.
Sorcha says she never lets her Eczema hold her back from doing anything. “It’s the reason I stopped caring what other people thought, and even if does affect how I live my life, I find a way around it.”
She’s hopeful and upbeat about the future. “It can always get better, or more manageable. The body changes every seven years, and I've known people older than me to grow out of it.”