Perspectives

I Spent Thousands On Eczema Treatments In Singapore & Have Finally Learnt To Love The Skin I’m In

Eczema in Singapore – symptoms, treatments & struggles


Eczema is pretty common in Singapore, affecting roughly one out of 10 people at some point of their lives, according to the National Skin Centre. If you don’t suffer from it yourself, chances are you’ve seen someone with splotches of reddened, dry and flaking skin. 

Also referred to as dermatitis, this condition comes in varying degrees and can cause males and females, children and grownups, to itch like crazy and experience severe pain – be it from the physical wounds or the psychological impact of having disfigured skin.

I can’t speak on behalf of all sufferers, but this is my personal account of what it’s like to live with eczema in Singapore. I’ve scratched my skin to oblivion, endured judgemental stares from those around me, spent thousands on dermatologist treatments and even dabbled in TCM – but at the end of the day, this is a story about how I’ve come to love the skin I’m in.

Warning: Graphic images ahead.

Find more stories about self-image here:


What is eczema?


The official medical definition of eczema is “a group of conditions that cause the skin to become itchy, inflamed, or have a rash-like appearance”. How I tend to describe it, whenever friends and new acquaintances ask “Oh my god what happened to your skin?!”, is a genetic curse where my skin gets inflamed for no good reason other than the fact that it’s hypersensitive.


Image credit: Renae Cheng

It was pretty much programmed in my DNA for me to suffer uncontrollable itching, dry and cracking patches of redness on my face and body, and a possibly lifelong need to seek constant medical care to keep my symptoms in order.


Living with eczema in Singapore



Image credit: Renae Cheng

I first showed signs of eczema as a lil primary school kid, where my inner elbows would itch and get really red and inflamed. It wasn’t anything an occasional dab of pharmacist-prescribed steroid cream couldn’t keep in check, though. That is, until an unexplainable flare-up of catastrophic proportions struck in my uni years.

 


I wore jackets and caps pretty much all the time, to cover up the redness and patchiness on my face and body.
Image credit: Renae Cheng

To date, I’ve pondered the events and conditions leading up to my major flare-up numerous times and in great detail, but I still can’t put my finger on what triggered it. Perhaps it was the academic stress, a sudden increase in humidity at the time, or even something in my diet.

It used to bug me that I’ll never get to know the answer for sure, but then I realised: knowing the reason won’t help to undo all the pain I’ve gone through, nor will it recoup the savings my family and I have sunken into all sorts of eczema treatments to try and make it go away.


I’m low-key glad masks are mandatory now. Even though they make my face sweaty and itchy, at least I can cover up my jaw wounds.
Image credit: Renae Cheng

The only thing I can do is to keep moving forward, and come to terms with the fact that this is just a disorder I have to live with. Sometimes, things are good and my skin is okay. Glowing, even! But other times, it can feel like I’ve scratched my way to rock bottom once again, and the journey of healing is not only long and expensive, but extremely tiring on my psyche as well.


Eczema struggles – Oozing wounds, rancid smells & concerned stares


Before I get into the graphic descriptions – you’ve been warned, it’s probably not a good idea to read this while eating – I would like to once again preface that this is my experience with eczema.

There are eczema sufferers with milder indications, and those whose cases are so severe that they have to be bundled up in bandages or bedridden altogether when a flare-up hits. Keep this in mind so you don’t go around expecting all folks with eczema to exhibit the same symptoms!


Not only does my skin get incredibly reddened, a peculiar “Bermuda Triangle” forms around my nose.
Image credit: Renae Cheng

Having extremely damaged and disfigured skin on ultra visible areas I can’t exactly conceal – like my face, neck and hands – has undoubtedly wrecked my self-esteem.

I try my best to cover up the eczema patches on my body by wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts, or jackets, at all times. But in Singapore’s sweltering heat, all that does is make me sweat like a pig and aggravate my raw and itchy skin even more.


Tell me how I’m supposed to wear shorts, skirts or cute mini dresses when my legs look like THIS.
Image credit: Renae Cheng

When the itching gets particularly severe, I lose all sense of self-control to the point where I scratch my layers of dermis right off – till the wounds are raw and oozing rancid-smelling fluids. That said, what I – and I believe many other eczema sufferers out there – can’t stand is that some people think we have weak self-control: “Just don’t scratch lah!” 

Oh, yes. What a top tip. I was obviously just scratching for funsies!

The itching sensation which arises from eczema is on a whole ‘nother level. It gets even worse when aggravated by additional physical or environmental factors, such as being coated in salty sweat or moving from a warm and humid outdoor setting to a cold, dry and air-conditioned room.


Image credit: Renae Cheng

Next, we have the extreme dryness of the skin which makes it look wrinkly and prematurely aged. Imagine reaching out for something and having people near you slightly recoil in shock, because your face says mid-20s but your hand looks like that of a senior citizen. 


Image credit: Renae Cheng

I constantly have to coat my skin in layers of moisturiser, which gets sucked right up because eczema skin gets that thirsty and moisture-deprived. On days where I forget to pack moisturiser in my bag, I run the risk of having my skin look reptilian by the end of the day – rough, scaly, and with tough ridges threatening to crack and bleed at a moment’s notice.


Eczema treatments I’ve tried and how they fared


One advantage to having a large community of eczema sufferers in Singapore is that most of us are incredibly open to sharing treatment methods – be it what we’ve tried or what we’ve heard works. Over the years, I’ve given a whole array of eczema treatments a go, in the hopes of someday having “normal” skin.


Dermatology treatments and steroid cream



Image credit: Renae Cheng

Specialist dermatology treatments came with a hefty price for my parents to fork out, but they were more than willing to explore all alternatives when they saw their precious child raw, bleeding and in utter agony. 

I’ve been to a handful of different dermatologists since the mid-2010s, but the one thing in common among them is that they will prescribe topical steroid creams. Topical steroids have an anti-inflammatory effect, hence used to target areas of the skin affected by eczema.

One of the dermatologists also prescribed a “face sock” to help the steroid cream and moisturiser combo absorb better. It made me look like a sperm cell.


Image credit: Renae Cheng

However, ask any eczema sufferer and they’re likely to tell you that steroid creams are a big no-no long-term as their sheer strength leads to thinning of the skin. Other side effects include causing the affected area to spread, possibly worsening the skin’s condition. True enough, I relied on topical steroids for months on end, and the state of my skin was in shambles.


Shedding skin like a moulting lizard
Image credit: Renae Cheng

There’s also topical steroid withdrawal you need to worry about, which is when you cease application after a prolonged period of time. Consequences include increased redness, itchiness and a burning sensation, and even peeling skin.


Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)


After my initial foray into dermatology treatments was met with little success, some of my relatives strongly recommended TCM. I was expecting acupuncture or cupping, but the doctor only gave me oral prescriptions.


Image for illustration only
Image credit: WNYC

This was a huge relief at first, as the thought of multiple needles piercing through my skin or flaming cups suctioned to my back had me petrified. My rejoicing didn’t last for long though, as the prescribed medication turned out to be the most foul-tasting substances I’ve ever had the misfortune of ingesting.

No shade to TCM whatsoever, but I still shudder when I think about how the natural medicine – a ground up concoction of various dried herbs which I had to mix with water to drink – tasted and smelled like literal soil.

Over the course of my treatment, I lived each day with dread of the next “drinking time”, where I had to psyche myself up for the ensuing gnarliness. I also had to standby some sweets to cleanse my palate and get rid of the “muddy” taste, if not I might’ve hurled.


Changes to my diet


Altering my diet was something that was advised by both the TCM practitioner and a ton of my friends and family. They would rave about how cutting certain foods out is a surefire way to “cure” eczema. The list was extensive but inconclusive, and spanned common everyday foods from eggs, chicken and prawns, to iced water.

As someone who lives to eat more than I eat to live, food is a major source of my joy in life. Asking me to give up on staple ingredients which I love – including things like eggs which would be like pulling teeth to avoid – was next to impossible.

I didn’t try this method for long, ‘cause I found the period of restriction to be downright painful. Yes, more painful and a bigger price to pay than my gaping eczema wounds.

Besides the pleasure of eating, I also greatly enjoy bonding with loved ones over food. So when I couldn’t share certain zi char dishes with my family, or had to order something boring and “clean” when my dining companions indulged in something that is supposedly detrimental to my condition, I felt like the things I look forward to most in life were robbed from me.


Changes to my lifestyle


Besides dietary restrictions, I also received loads of recommendations to improve my lifestyle and get rid of unhealthy habits. This included going to bed earlier so I don’t miss the 11PM-2AM cell recovery window every night, which would do wonders not only for my eczema but my physiological well-being in general.

As a full-time working young adult, asking me to sleep earlier than 11PM is bonkers. Not only is there too much to do with the 24 hours each of us are given, I’m a big-time culprit of “revenge bedtime procrastination”.

This recently coined term is a phenomenon where people deliberately stay up late so as to regain a sense of control over their time, because their hours in the day are taken up by school or work commitments.


Me looking a right mess after drinking Yajult soju on New Year’s Eve. How much, you ask? A quarter of the mug. #lightweight
Image credit: Renae Cheng

My only saving grace is that I don’t smoke, which is known to cause severe damage to the skin on a cellular level. I also rarely drink alcohol. But once I do, my face and body flare up into a disastrous, bright red and wildly itching mess. Yup, definitely not fun to deal with while celebrating special occasions.


Learning to cope with eczema and love the skin I’m in


If someone were to tell me years ago, when my first major bout of eczema took over my entire face and body, that I would one day be okay with it – I would laugh and ask you to pass the steroid cream. And concealer.

But now, after more than half a decade of navigating life with “active” eczema, I almost feel glad to have been born with this skin disorder. The keyword is almost.


Nothing humbles you quite like having to head out with an entirely raw and swollen face, looking like a character from Alien Vs Predator.
Image credit: Renae Cheng

Eczema aside, I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. While I used to hate my genetic “curse” of having eczema woven in my DNA, I now regard it as something that I am fated to learn to deal with. 

Life is too boring if you play it on “easy” mode, which I choose to believe is why the universe – or whichever holy entity you subscribe to – has given me an added challenge to navigate and overcome.

In a society where appearances carry so much value, I’ve learnt that skin can be just that – an outside layer not dictating the value of the person within. 


Image credit: Pepita Wauran

Having suffered and survived extreme incidents relating to my appearance – from scratching my eyebrows till they shedded at their roots to showing up to class with a raw and skinless face – has made me stronger and more resilient when it comes to matters concerning self-esteem.

I guess you could say I had to learn to become thick-skinned when it mattered the most – especially at times where I didn’t have that much actual skin.

Check out more perspectives here:


Cover image credit: Renae Cheng

Renae Cheng

I love food, dance, writing, and writing about food and dance.

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