Why eczema is more than skin deep for its sufferers

Steve Bailey and wife Charly
Steve Bailey and wife Charly

Steve Bailey has got used to masking how he’s really feeling with a smile.

As a presenter for BBC Radio Sheffield, he presents a bubbly and confident front to the public.

Woman's face

Woman's face

But behind closed doors, Steve has struggled with the mental and physical effects of eczema since he was young, always keeping his condition hidden from all but his closest family and friends.

“I’d imagine 80 per cent of the time it’s ruling how I think I’m perceived by other people,” he admits.

“I’m either red, swollen, inflamed, or sore, and I feel like I have to make excuses for that. It’s embarrassing.

“The itch can become so intense that I want to rip my skin off in order to let the flesh underneath breathe.”

Eczema, also known as dermatitis, is a dry skin condition which, according to the National Eczema Society, affects one in 12 adults in the UK and about 20 per cent of children. Though a fairly common ailment, it is highly individual and the severity of the condition can vary wildly.

In Steve’s case, his suffering was taken to a whole new level in 2013 when he developed a cellulitis infection on his foot that was so horrific, he feared he may lose his foot.

“I think I made the excuse that I had dropped a wardrobe on it to cover up the fact the eczema was the real reason,” Steve, aged 40, recalls with a rueful smile.

“I was on antibiotic after antibiotic and eventually, thank God, it worked. Hopefully I’m never in that position again.”

It was after this scare that Steve decided to lift the lid on the disease that had ruled his life for the past 35 years and delve deeper into its devastating effects, by speaking to others in the region who have shared his painful journey. The result was ‘Eczema: More than Skin Deep,’ a candid documentary which aired on BBC Radio Sheffield earlier this month, ahead of National Eczema Week, which kicked off on September 17. In it, Steve chats to some of the world’s leading authorities on eczema, who reveal just how life-destroying it can be and what ground-breaking world studies are taking place at Sheffield’s Children Hospital to battle the medical condition.

Steve, who lives in Bradford with wife Charly, says: “If you’d have told me I would be making a documentary about eczema three years ago I would never have believed you. I – amongst millions of others – suffer silently from this illness every day, yet not everyone truly understands how bad it can be. I’m really proud that this piece of work will give other people a voice and dispel the myths about eczema.

“As a child, eczema ruined my confidence, and that was something I heard from a lot of other people I spoke to. It affects everything and is very personal. One little itch on your ankle can quickly spread around the body and suddenly everything is raw and distressed; after all, your skin is one big organ. At my worst, I felt I looked like an alien.”

Steve also chats to Alice Widdowson, a 17-year-old from Rotherham whose eczema has ruled most of her life.

Steve says: “Alice tells a story about when she suffered severe side effects from a drug that made her skin eat itself from the inside out, and she talks openly about bullying in school and the loneliness this illness has caused her. She’s been admitted to hospital with skin infections that have seen her skin disappear right down to the bone. Alice was a real inspiration to me, such an articulate young girl and I’m honoured she opened up to me to tell her story.

“My wife also spoke on the documentary, bringing the partner’s perspective. After all, when my suffering makes me self-conscious, I tend to avoid social situations and become quite insular and focused on myself, which obviously affects her, so I think her story’s interesting.”

Professor Mike Cork, a consultant dermatologist at the University of Sheffield, describes eczema as ‘one of the most destructive diseases we have.’

“The very mildest form of atopic eczema could be a tiny bit of dry skin on a baby’s face and all you need is to avoid soap and detergents and apply some cream,” he says.

“But, when we come to severe eczema, things are so different: 100 per cent of the skin surface can be affected, bright red, bleeding, infected. It can be hard to move, impossible to work, these people can’t have relationships, their lives are totally destroyed.”

Alice, who was first admitted to hospital with the effects of eczema when she was 18-months-old, says: “Anything could set my eczema off, a bath being too hot, the house being too cold, stress, irritants. It could start anywhere on my body and I could be dealing with a little weepy cut or a big deep gouge.”

Steve adds: “I was speaking to Professor Cork who said that people who don’t suffer with eczema probably don’t understand how you can scratch your skin so hard you rip it open, but he said, what you have to remember, is that that skin is overflowing with chemicals which make it virtually impossible not to scratch. Imagine, if you can, wearing a wet suit with nettles stuffed inside it. You’d want to rip it off too.”

‘Eczema: More than Skin Deep’ is available on the BBC iPlayer until the end of the month.