TORONTO - Preet Bhogal still remembers being taunted in school for his inflamed skin. The Nova Scotia native would always wear long-sleeved shirts to cover his arms and tried to shrug off jeers about the flare-ups on his hands, but the words still hurt.
"My eczema covered just about my whole body," says the 33-year-old, who has lived with the skin condition since he was a baby.
"It definitely affected my self image, self esteem, mental health."
While the physical severity of Bhogal's eczema improved with a combination of age and a strict care regime, its emotional impact continued to be felt in subtle ways. He didn't wear short-sleeved T-shirts until he was in his 20s, doesn't know how to swim because his eczema was exacerbated by pool water and vividly recalls how concerned some of his peers were about catching the skin condition that isn't contagious.
"There's almost a barrier around you. Because I had visible eczema, people were afraid to get close," he says.
While Bhogal's case was an extreme one, the challenges he faced are encountered by many living with eczema today.
As the rates of those who experience the condition appear to be on the rise, Bhogal and advocates for those with skin disease hope having conversations about eczema will help demystify the condition and make it easier to deal with.
"There's often a lack of awareness of the issues that it causes and the amount of stress in the way that skin disease really affects someone’s life," says Bhogal, who is now a board member with the Canadian Skin Patient Alliance.
"I would like for people to just know that it exists and for people to not be afraid to talk about it."
While official annual statistics are hard to come by, a number of doctors and patient support groups estimate about 20 per cent of Canadians will experience eczema at some point in their lives.
"When you talk about 20 per cent, that's huge," says Dr. Catherine McCuaig, a pediatric dermatologist at the Sainte-Justine children’s hospital in Montreal.
"It's a very common condition."
Eczema exists in different forms and is most often experienced in childhood. One of the most common forms is atopic dermatitis, a hereditary condition which results in red, itchy and swollen skin which can have fluid-filled bumps that ooze and crust.
Another common form is contact dermatitis — where skin is inflamed from contact with an allergen, like poison ivy, or repeated exposure to an irritant. Other versions of eczema include a form associated with varicose veins and another related to dry skin.
According to McCuaig, who also teaches dermatology and pediatrics at the University of Montreal, while the rates of eczema appear to be on the rise, the severity of the condition could be increasing as well.
There are theories that a combination of genetics, environmental factors and poor immune systems in children brought up in over-sterile environment could all be factors in the rise of the condition, says McCuaig.
One of the priorities for dermatologists now is ensuring that those with the skin condition get the physical and mental care that they need.
"Most people get the diagnosis however they may not have adequate treatment," says McCuaig, adding that her hospital's skin treatment team includes a psychologist and a social worker.
According to McCuaig, increased physician and patient education on eczema would help raise the profile of the condition and how it is dealt with.
That's where organizations like the Eczema Society of Canada come in. The advocacy group not only offers support to those with the condition, but also works towards explaining eczema to those unfamiliar with it.
"I think we often minimize or don't understand how it can feel to live with an itchy, burning skin rash on your skin most of the time," says society president Amanda Cresswell-Melville, whose own son had severe eczema as an infant.
As part of their efforts, the society is producing its first guide for schools and daycares to help educators better understand the condition and the needs of students who deal with it.
Some of the recommendations in the publication slated for release in November include special soaps in washrooms, special consideration for those with eczema during craft time and field trips, and pointers for teachers who may confuse behaviour related to eczema — jittery kids who have trouble concentrating due to their itchy skin — with other conditions like attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity.
"A lot of teachers don't even know about eczema," says Cresswell-Melville. "We're really trying to bridge that gap between school and home."
Ultimately, support and understanding are key to helping someone with eczema deal with their condition without suffering deep emotional scars.
"Part of what we always try to emphasize is that it is a struggle and it is difficult, and patients living with this really are living with quite a challenge," Cresswell-Melville said. "Working through that is really important."
Also on HuffPost:
Avocado is a restorative fruit, perfect for protecting and balancing your hair and skin. It is often called the "ultimate beauty fruit" because it delivers nourishing natural oils and other benefits. The vitamin A in avocado adds sheen to hair, vitamin B balances oil production, whether your skin and hair are too oily or dry, and vitamin E protects and repairs sun and pollution damage. You can simply mash up one or two avocados into a mud and apply to hair or skin; for a deluxe treatment, try adding: 1 tablespoon of warmed raw organic honey 1 tablespoon of organic mayonnaise or almond oil Apply to face, body, and hair (cover hair with shower cap) and let sit for 15 minutes, then rinse well and shampoo if necessary.
Cucumber is a highly effective beauty food packed with vitamins and silica, an antioxidant that can help relieve dark-circled or tired, puffy eyes. It also supports cell growth and repair for skin, scalp and body. Simply slice a cucumber for a clean face and neck treatment, or purée it into a clear cream for a scalp treatment. For a great hair or skin mask, try this recipe: 1 cucumber puréed or diced ¼ cup plain organic yogurt 1 teaspoon Aloe Vera juice A dash of sea salt Blend, apply and leave on 10-15 min. Be sure to rinse well.
Whole grain scrubs can be soothing and healing, as well as helpful in detoxing, exfoliating, hydrating and softening skin. Oatmeal and quinoa grains are great for all skin types, and both are high in proteins, saponins and essential nutrients -- all perfect agents for building new skin. Try ½ cup whole or ground organic oats or quinoa cooked or steamed with water or almond/rice milk for a quick pick-me-up. Be sure to let it cool before applying and rinse well. For extra benefits try adding: 1 tablespoon raw organic Agave 1 mashed organic fig or ¼ cup unsweetened apple sauce Apply generously to skin and scalp; leave on 15 minutes and rinse well. Shampoo if necessary.
Bananas with Cocoa
Banana fudge hair/face/body antioxidant balms -- made from bananas and cocoa --are loaded with the mineral sulphur, which promotes healthy hair, skin and nails. This complete anti-aging "sundae" offers free-radical and UV protection for skin: ½ cup cocoa or cacao 1 mashed/puréed ripe organic banana 2 tablespoons macadamia nut oil or butter 1 egg 2 tablespoons heavy cream 1 spoonful organic brown sugar A dash of cinnamon Blend or whip into a pudding balm. Apply to face/body and hair/scalp for 15 minutes and rinse well. Shampoo if necessary.
Papaya is a great way to infuse C and E vitamins into your skin and hair, and exfoliate, soften and tone your skin all in one blast. Papaya enzymes are often used in skin products because they make your face and body glow. It works well as a hair mask, too. For a citrusy recipe: 1 papaya, puréed or blended 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice 1 teaspoon fresh orange or tangerine juice 2 tablespoons raw organic warmed honey Mix ingredients together or blend in a food processor. Generously apply to face and neck (keeping away from eyes), and rinse well after 10 minutes. Shampoo if necessary.
100 percent coconut oil-infused moisturizers have amazing healing properties for skin, body, hair and scalp. This fruit butter promotes hair growth and is a serious healing salve for skin disorders such as eczema and dandruff. Try: 2 tablespoons coconut oil (put the jar in a cup of hot water and the oil will go from butter to a pliable liquid) ½ cup shaved or pureed organic carrot 10 drops of geranium oil 5 drops of chamomile oil 5 drops of jasmine oil A pinch of rosemary, sage and or finely ground sea salt. Combine and use moderately all over body or massage into scalp to stimulate skin and hair. Rinse well after 20 minutes. A light shampoo on hair may be necessary.
Strawberries contain amazing medicinal properties: they're rich in vitamin C and malic acid, both of which are both great for cleansing, toning and brightening. For a natural blemish remover and teeth whitener, try blending: 1 tablespoon crushed fresh organic strawberries 1 tablespoon of cream of tartar or baking soda ½ teaspoon of fresh organic lemon or lime juice 1 teaspoon organic tooth powder or non-toxic toothpaste Blend all ingredients into a paste and spot apply to blemishes and teeth (once a week) for 5 minutes. Rinse well.
De-stressing tea baths and toners made from apples, rose petals and chamomile tea are rich in flavonoids, vitamin C, pectin and malic acid. They revive and firm dull saggy skin, tighten pores, and calm inflammation -- plus they are ultra-hydrating for the face and body. Try this concoction: 1 finely sliced apple 1 cup of rose petals 3 bags of chamomile tea Fill bath and float ingredients and soak your body. You can also boil ingredients for 10 minutes, then steep till cool. Strain into a spray bottle and mist your face and body for an early-morning wake-me-up or a refresher during the day.