A woman applying lotion to her left arm

To say that living with skin asthma is a challenge is an understatement. Most people suffering from the skin condition end up living with it for decades, along with the physical struggles and social stigma that go with it. Also known as atopic dermatitis, skin asthma usually manifests in children as young as eight to 12 months as a chronic skin condition that goes on into adulthood. It is also possible to develop it as an adult.

The World Allergy Organization defines it as “an inflammatory, chronically relapsing, non-contagious, and extremely pruritic skin disease. “Atopic” comes from the root word “atopy,” which the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology defines as the genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases. This makes atopic dermatitis an allergic condition, classified under a group of atopic diseases, along with food allergies, seasonal allergies, and asthma. Hence, the non-medical term, skin asthma.

Skin Asthma: Symptoms and Causes

Skin asthma can be difficult to deal with and can affect people mentally and emotionally.

Skin asthma or atopic dermatitis is the most common kind of eczema. It’s also often severe and long-lasting. According to the National Eczema Association (NEA) of the US, people with atopic dermatitis have overactive immune systems, which trigger inflammation that damages the skin barrier, leaving it dry, and prone to itching and rashes. Sometimes the itch comes first, and you have to scratch it so hard that it turns into a rash. These rashes can be red, pink, purple, grayish, or brown, depending on the skin tone.

The NEA also says 85% of people with atopic dermatitis experience itching every day, along with poor sleep and poor quality of life — both for the patient and their loved ones. The condition has no cure, which means a life-long commitment to precautions and medication that can be frustrating, not to mention expensive.

BeautyHub.PH interviewed several women with skin asthma who agreed to share their experience with the disease, what triggers it for them, and how they cope throughout the years. 

Skin asthma triggered by extreme weather.

Reena Donasco has been suffering from skin asthma for 24 years.

“My skin asthma is triggered by extreme heat and would worsen when I sweat. It shows up on visible parts of my body like my neck, the crook of my elbows, and behind my knees. That was such a blow to my self-esteem. I hid as much as I could during breaks,” Reena shares. 

Reena says her condition has improved since and flares up less frequently now.

“I’d apply Diprolene on the red and itchy parts, and normally it would heal slowly after a day or two. I try to stay in cool places or park myself in front of the fan and hog it,” she laughs as she recalls it now. 

“I just to let my skin cool down and not irritate it further. At home, I would wear a wide-neck shirt or tank tops with shorts. Or a loose dress. Anything that won’t stick to my skin so I can let it breathe.”

Skin asthma triggered by allergens.

For Cristina Barrameda, who’s had skin asthma for 30 years, what really helped was going to an expert. “I had to be exposed to UV light during flare-ups and have a range of dermatologist-provided topical and oral medicines. On a day-to-day basis, it’s knowing the allergens and sticking to a skincare routine that helps. It’s knowing which products work on my skin best and which ones are available locally and globally. I used to live abroad and travel a lot, so adjusting the products based on season also helps,” she says.

Cristina shares that she didn’t wear shorts or skirts outside the house until she was in her 20s. “Since I dressed conservatively, I didn’t receive negative comments. My skin asthma was largely on the rest of my body, and my facial skin was controlled, so most think I have beautiful skin — I’ve never had a facial,” she adds.

Symptoms triggered by stress.

Anna Martelino suffers from psoriasis, which has symptoms similar to severe atopic dermatitis, but with stinging and burning. The affected skin is also thicker and more inflamed. Unlike atopic dermatitis, which is an allergic disease, psoriasis is triggered by stress and infection. 

“Since this lockdown, my psoriasis has been acting up,” she shares, adding that she has tried all remedies from pills to injections, creams, acupuncture, and ointments. “I have not been psoriasis-free for over 30 years.”

For Anna, everyday struggles of having her condition include covering up when dressing and not going to the beach or swimming. “People in swimming places look at people with psoriasis as contagious.” She adds, “Some people move backward when they catch a glimpse of your flare-up.” The fact is, both psoriasis and skin asthma are not contagious.

Any anxiety can also trigger the attack.

Not all cases of skin asthma start from childhood. Dindin Araneta shares her skin asthma peaked when she was 24 years old. “I was trying to have a baby at this time. It subsided when I was 36 or 37 when I did acupuncture and started meditation,” she shares. For her, acupuncture was an effective skin asthma cure. “Before that, I was itchy all the time. Eventually, I noticed that if I could find a way to address any anxiety that may be triggering the attack, the itching would subside.” 

Her skin asthma would come out in the summertime and cold weather. “I could only use Dove soap for bathing,” she shares.

Managing Skin Asthma

There are ways you can manage your skin asthma using gentle products.

The NEA lists ways to manage mild skin asthma, including avoiding known triggers, bathing and moisturizing regularly to protect the skin barrier, getting high-quality sleep, eating a healthy diet, and managing stress. Extra measures can include topical corticosteroids and non-steroidal topicals, but they should be taken under a dermatologist’s supervision.

Thick cream or ointment is recommended for moisturizing skin. The NEA has affirmed that Vaseline Petroleum Jelly Original is suitable for people with eczema and other sensitive skin conditions. Apply it on sensitive areas to combat symptoms of dry skin. It contains an occlusive formula which locks in hydration and helps facilitate the skin’s natural regeneration. 

To prevent flare-ups, Harvard Health recommends avoiding harsh soaps, dry air, and extreme temperatures. A fragrance-free soap such as Dove Sensitive Skin Body Wash can help replenish moisture with ¼ moisturizing cream and is suitable for delicate skin. 

As the saying goes, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” You never know what someone might be going through. Skin asthma is not an easy condition to live with, and it can contribute to low self-esteem, especially when reinforced with a social stigma. If you are experiencing this condition for longer than a week, you may need to seek medical advice. If you know someone who is going through this, talk to them, give your support, and let them know they are loved and accepted.