11 Facts About Eczema

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iStock.com/Anetlanda

If you’ve ever had to deal with dry winter skin, you may think you know what eczema feels like. But anyone living with the chronic condition will tell you it’s much more than that. Rashes can rear their heads at any time of year, and eczema causes include irritants as mundane as food, clothes, and the weather. Symptoms range from mildly annoying to distracting enough to keep people from getting sleep and focusing on their work. Here are some more facts about eczema causes, symptoms, and treatments.

1. Eczema isn't just one condition.

Rather than describing one specific skin condition, eczema is used as a catch-all term for a group of related conditions. When people mention eczema, they’re often referring to atopic dermatitis: This is a chronic inflammatory condition characterized by dry, itchy red patches that flare up across the body when the immune system overreacts to a trigger. There’s also contact dermatitis, which is when rashes are triggered by irritants coming in contact with the skin; nummular eczema, when rashes are coin-shaped; and stasis dermatitis, when fluid “weeps” out of weakened blood vessels in the skin. Eczema shouldn't be confused with psoriasis: While both are conditions that lead to dry, itchy skin, the latter is an autoimmune condition while the former is primarily caused by allergic reactions.

2. Eczema is sometimes limited to the hands.

Eczema doesn’t have to affect the entire body. Hand eczema comes with many of the same symptoms of regular dermatitis—including chapped skin, painful cracks, red patches, and itchy blisters—but is limited to the hands and forearms. Many people without eczema deal with dry hands, especially during the colder months, so it can be difficult to know when these symptoms are signs of a medical condition. If your itchy, irritated hands can’t be treated with moisturizer alone, ask a dermatologist if you may have hand eczema.

3. It's often genetic.

Your genetic background is a strong predictor of eczema. If both of your parents have it, there’s an 80 percent chance that you will develop it as well, according to the Eczema Association Australasia. A family history of asthma and hay fever is also linked to eczema.

4. Eczema can be debilitating.

A list of symptoms doesn’t begin to capture what the experience of living with eczema is like. The itching and discomfort that comes with it can be so intense that it keeps people up at night, leaving them exhausted and unable to function during the day. Symptoms may be so acute that they’re all the person thinks about, which can hinder their relationships and work life. Others may feel discouraged to go out in public because they’re self-conscious of how their skin looks.

5. It's not contagious.

No matter how much contact you have with someone with eczema, there’s no chance of you catching their skin condition. Despite this, many people will see someone scratching their eczema rashes and assume what they have is just as contagious as poison ivy or chicken pox. And because eczema often runs in families, it sometimes carries the illusion of “spreading” between people who live together.

6. Eczema can be triggered by your environment ...

There are a number of environmental factors that can trigger eczema symptoms. Changes in climate—either to cold, dry conditions or hot, humid ones—may be enough to provoke a flare-up. For many people, chemical irritants are the sources of their rashes. Cigarette smoke, perfumes, household cleaners, shampoos, and fabrics like wool and polyester have all been linked to eczema reactions. That doesn't mean that everyone with eczema needs to avoid these things: The condition affects everyone differently, and an irritant that causes one person’s flare-ups may have zero effect on someone else.

7. ... and stress level.

Even if someone with eczema takes great pains to avoid their environmental triggers, a hard day may be all it takes to make their skin break out. Many people with eczema report exacerbated symptoms when they're feeling stressed. According to the National Eczema Association, eczema sufferers are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, creating a vicious cycle for patients who count stress as a trigger.

8. It's connected to allergies.

Eczema is often accompanied by an allergic condition, whether it’s asthma, hay fever, or allergies to food. Up to 80 percent of children with atopic dermatitis go on to develop asthma or hay fever. It’s unclear what the exact relationship between allergies and eczema is, but some medical experts believe that the weakened skin barrier associated with eczema makes it easier for allergens to enter the body, which can in turn impact the immune system over time. Allergens—like pollen, dust, pet dander, and mold— are also triggers for some people with eczema.

9. Scratching makes it worse.

When an eczema flare-up starts to itch, it can be impossible to think about anything else. But scratching a rash is the last thing people with this condition should do. Instead of relieving discomfort, scratching a dry patch of skin can irritate it even further. Sometimes eczema sufferers scratch their skin so much that it starts to bleed, opening the door for potential infections.

10. Eczema is more common in kids.

Eczema affects roughly 11 percent of U.S. children [PDF] and 7 percent of adults [PDF]. Most kids with eczema develop it within the first five years of life, with 65 percent percent of child eczema patients first showing symptoms as infants. Living with eczema can be taxing for both kids and parents—especially when kids can’t stop themselves from scratching their rashes—but fortunately, half of kids with the condition grow out of it by the time they reach their teen years.

11. It can't be cured—but it can be treated.

There’s no cure for eczema, but there are some treatments that can help keep aggressive symptoms under control. Above all, eczema patients should keep their skin clean and moisturized to prevent flare-ups. Doctors recommend taking regular showers with warm water (but not hot water, as that can dry skin even more), and applying moisturizer immediately after bathing. If regular moisturizer isn't enough to soothe skin, doctors may prescribe a topical ointment with steroids to reduce inflammation, and if that still isn't effective, systemic medications that fight inflammation throughout the whole body may help. Ultraviolet B therapy is another treatment option. A few times a week, patients stand in a UVB light box that mimics natural sunlight. This encourages vitamin D production and curbs skin's inflammatory response while calming itchiness at the same time.

12 Intriguing Facts About the Intestines

When we talk about the belly, gut, or bowels, what we're really talking about are the intestines—long, hollow, coiled tubes that comprise a major part of the digestive tract, running from the stomach to the anus. The intestines begin with the small intestine, divided into three parts whimsically named the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum, which absorb most of the nutrients from what we eat and drink. Food then moves into the large intestine, or colon, which absorbs water from the digested food and expels it into the rectum. That's when sensitive nerves in your rectum create the sensation of needing to poop.

These organs can be the source of intestinal pain, such as in irritable bowel syndrome, but they can also support microbes that are beneficial to your overall health. Here are some more facts about your intestines.

1. The intestines were named by medieval anatomists.

Medieval anatomists had a pretty good understanding of the physiology of the gut, and are the ones who gave the intestinal sections their names, which are still used today in modern anatomy. When they weren't moralizing about the organs, they got metaphorical about them. In 1535, the Spanish doctor Andrés Laguna noted that because the intestines "carry the chyle and all the excrement through the entire region of the stomach as if through the Ocean Sea," they could be likened to "those tall ships which as soon as they have crossed the ocean come to Rouen with their cargoes on their way to Paris but transfer their cargoes at Rouen into small boats for the last stage of the journey up the Seine."

2. Leonardo da Vinci believed the intestines helped you breathe.

Leonardo mistakenly believed the digestive system aided respiratory function. In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and expresses the air." While that isn't anatomically accurate, it is true that the opening of the lungs is helped by the relaxation of stomach muscles, which does draw down the diaphragm.

3. Your intestines could cover two tennis courts ...

Your intestines take up a whole lot of square footage inside you. "The surface area of the intestines, if laid out flat, would cover two tennis courts," Colby Zaph, a professor of immunology in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Melbourne's Monash University, tells Mental Floss. The small intestine alone is about 20 feet long, and the large intestine about 5 feet long.

4. ... and they're pretty athletic.

The process of moving food through your intestines requires a wave-like pattern of muscular action, known as peristalsis, which you can see in action during surgery in this YouTube video.

5. Your intestines can fold like a telescope—but that's not something you want to happen.

Intussusception is the name of a condition where a part of your intestine folds in on itself, usually between the lower part of the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine. It often presents as severe intestinal pain and requires immediate medical attention. It's very rare, and in children may be related to a viral infection. In adults, it's more commonly a symptom of an abnormal growth or polyp.

6. Intestines are very discriminating.

"The intestines have to discriminate between good things—food, water, vitamins, good bacteria—and bad things, such as infectious organisms like viruses, parasites and bad bacteria," Zaph says. Researchers don't entirely know how the intestines do this. Zaph says that while your intestines are designed to keep dangerous bacteria contained, infectious microbes can sometimes penetrate your immune system through your intestines.

7. The small intestine is covered in "fingers" ...

The lining of the small intestine is blanketed in tiny finger-like protrusions known as villi. These villi are then covered in even tinier protrusions called microvilli, which help capture food particles to absorb nutrients, and move food on to the large intestine.

8. ... And you can't live without it.

Your small intestine "is the sole point of food and water absorption," Zaph says. Without it, "you'd have to be fed through the blood."

9. The intestines house your microbiome. 

The microbiome is made up of all kinds of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoans, "and probably used to include worm parasites too," says Zaph. So in a way, he adds, "we are constantly infected with something, but it [can be] helpful, not harmful."

10. Intestines are sensitive to change.

Zaph says that many factors change the composition of the microbiome, including antibiotics, foods we eat, stress, and infections. But in general, most people's microbiomes return to a stable state after these events. "The microbiome composition is different between people and affected by diseases. But we still don't know whether the different microbiomes cause disease, or are a result in the development of disease," he says.

11. Transferring bacteria from one gut to another can transfer disease—or maybe cure it.

"Studies in mice show that transplanting microbes from obese mice can transfer obesity to thin mice," Zaph says. But transplanting microbes from healthy people into sick people can be a powerful treatment for some intestinal infections, like that of the bacteria Clostridium difficile, he adds. Research is pouring out on how the microbiome affects various diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and even autism.

12. The microbes in your intestines might influence how you respond to medical treatments.

Some people don't respond to cancer drugs as effectively as others, Zaph says. "One reason is that different microbiomes can metabolize the drugs differently." This has huge ramifications for chemotherapy and new cancer treatments called checkpoint inhibitors. As scientists learn more about how different bacteria metabolize drugs, they could possibly improve how effective existing cancer treatments are.

15 Unique Illnesses You Can Only Come Down With in German

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iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

The German language is so perfectly suited for these syndromes, coming down with them in any other language just won’t do.

1. Kevinismus

At some point in the last couple of decades, parents in Germany started coming down with Kevinismus—a strange propensity to give their kids wholly un-German, American-sounding names like Justin, Mandy, Dennis, Cindy, and Kevin. Kids with these names reportedly tend to be less successful in school and in life, although some researchers have suggested this could be due to a combination of teachers’ prejudices toward the names and the lower social status of parents who choose names like Kevin.

2. Föhnkrankheit

Föhn is the name for a specific wind that cools air as it draws up one side of a mountain, and then warms it as it compresses coming down the other side. These winds are believed to cause headaches and other feelings of illness. Many a 19th century German lady took to her fainting couch with a cold compress, suffering from Föhnkrankheit.

3. Kreislaufzusammenbruch

Kreislaufzusammenbruch, or “circulatory collapse,” sounds deathly serious, but it’s used quite commonly in Germany to mean something like “feeling woozy” or “I don’t think I can come into work today.”

4. Hörsturz

Hörsturz refers to a sudden loss of hearing, which in Germany is apparently frequently caused by stress. Strangely, while every German knows at least five people who have had a bout of Hörsturz, it is practically unheard of anywhere else.

5. Frühjahrsmüdigkeit

Frühjahrsmüdigkeit or “early year tiredness” can be translated as “spring fatigue.” Is it from the change in the weather? Changing sunlight patterns? Hormone imbalance? Allergies? As afflictions go, Frühjahrsmüdigkeit is much less fun than our “spring fever,” which is instead associated with increased vim, vigor, pep, and randiness.

6. Fernweh

Fernweh is the opposite of homesickness. It is the longing for travel, or getting out there beyond the horizon, or what you might call wanderlust.

7. Putzfimmel

Putzen means “to clean” and Fimmel is a mania or obsession. Putzfimmel is an obsession with cleaning. It is not unheard of outside of Germany, but elsewhere it is less culturally embedded and less fun to say.

8. Werthersfieber

An old-fashioned type of miserable lovesickness that was named “Werther’s fever” for the hero of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Poor young Werther suffers for the love of a peasant girl who is already married. Death is his only way out. A generation of sensitive young men brought made Werthersfieber quite fashionable in the late 18th century.

9. Ostalgie

Ostalgie is nostalgia for the old way of life in East Germany (ost means East). If you miss your old Trabant and those weekly visits from the secret police, you may have Ostalgie.

10. Zeitkrankheit

Zeitkrankheit is “time sickness” or “illness of the times.” It’s a general term for whatever the damaging mindset or preoccupations of a certain era are.

11. Weltschmerz

Weltschmerz or “world pain,” is a sadness brought on by a realization that the world cannot be the way you wish it would be. It’s more emotional than pessimism, and more painful than ennui.

12. Ichschmerz

Ichschmerz is like Weltschmerz, but it is dissatisfaction with the self rather than the world. Which is probably what Weltschmerz really boils down to most of the time.

13. Lebensmüdigkeit

Lebensmüdigkeit translates as despair or world-weariness, but it also more literally means “life tiredness.” When someone does something stupidly dangerous, you might sarcastically ask, “What are you doing? Are you lebensmüde?!”

14. Zivilisationskrankheit

Zivilisationskrankheit, or “civilization sickness” is a problem caused by living in the modern world. Stress, obesity, eating disorders, carpal tunnel syndrome, and diseases like type 2 diabetes are all examples.

15. Torschlusspanik

Torschlusspanik or “gate closing panic” is the anxiety-inducing awareness that as time goes on, life’s opportunities just keep getting fewer and fewer and there’s no way to know which ones you should be taking before they close forever. It’s a Zivilisationskrankheit that may result in Weltschmerz, Ichschmerz, or Lebensmüdigkeit.

This list first ran in 2015.

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