Kaitlin Toliver has eczema. That’s not so unusual, as it’s estimated that one out of every 10 kids in the U.S. develops eczema.
But Kaitlin has a severe form of eczema, along with her 13-year-old sister and 7-year-old brother, and that’s pretty unusual, her doctor says.
Her mother has it as well. She was one of three children among six siblings to have it, Kaitlin says.
Eczema is a skin condition in which the skin becomes red and irritated and sometimes develops red bumps or dry, scaly patches. Anyone can get eczema, but it is primarily seen in children. There is no cure. And though most children will outgrow the condition, Kaitlin says she will have to deal with eczema for the rest of her life.
In addition to affecting her life, the 18-year-old’s eczema has also affected her health. She is overweight and joined The Journal Gazette’s Weighty Matters Fit Crew program this summer to try and get healthy.
But it has not been easy. Eczema is not an allergy, but it can lead to allergies and certain triggers can make it flare up or worsen.
Dr. Jeffrey W. Sassmannshausen of Three Rivers Dermatology in Fort Wayne has been Kaitlin’s doctor since she was little.
He refers to eczema as the itch that rashes, and it occurs because a person’s skin barrier has been disrupted, causing it to lose water and become dry.
Sassmannshausen says people with eczema have more of a chance of developing allergies.
Kaitlin says she has outdoor allergies and some food allergies, which limits what can be cooked at home. Her sister also has food and outdoor allergies. Eczema is also tied to asthma, which Kaitlin has.
Another trigger of eczema is sweat. Whenever she gets hot, she gets itchy, which is problematic when trying to work out.
Kaitlin’s eczema is severe. She has it on her arms, legs, lower back, hands and feet. And it’s very noticeable.
When she was little, she primarily wore long pants and long sleeves to try and hide the condition. It would suck ’cause I would get hot, Kaitlin says.
Kaitlin was teased a lot in school because of her condition, she says. She was often called names and asked if her condition was contagious. That caused her to mostly stay inside or in class instead of playing outdoors, she says.
If you look at me from here down, Kaitlin says, using her hands to motion from her face to her shoulders, I look normal.
Indeed, her face, which is easy to smile, is without the dry patches. But as a black woman, her skin color, which is usually drier than other ethnic groups, also contributes to her condition, she says.
Sassmannshausen says blacks do have more issues of dry skin. Eczema is usually among skin diseases that are more prevalent in blacks than other races, according to medical reports.
Sassmannshausen says the important thing to watch for in chronic skin disorders such as Kaitlin’s is the lightening and darkening of the skin. He said eczema can cause discoloration, especially in people of color.
Sassmannshausen uses creams and ointments to try and help control eczema. He also prescribes topical creams to ease the irritation of the skin that eczema causes. It is a very difficult disease, he says.
He suggests that people maintain good skin health, including using cleansers that are soap free and moisturizers.
Kaitlin uses an ointment three times a day to help keep it under control. If left untreated, the condition can turn into infections and it leaves scars. It’s kind of annoying, she says.
Now that she is older, Kaitlin is a little more open about her eczema, wearing a short-sleeve shirt and flip flops on a recent hot summer day, even though she still wore long pants.
She also has found comfort among others who have the condition. Each summer since she was 8, Kaitlin has traveled to a conference for people suffering from eczema.
The conference takes place every two years and is in different cities. So far she has traveled to St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and Boston. She says she has met a lot of kids with eczema, some with worse conditions then hers.
In addition, she spent last week at a camp in Pennsylvania for kids with eczema, where she was a camp counselor.
Over the years, she has learned at the conferences that eczema varies in each person and everyone is different when it comes to the condition. I think everyone has their own way of dealing with it, she says.
Her way of dealing with it is to be courageous about her condition. As a camp counselor, she offers young people this advice: accept themselves. It’s a lesson she works on daily, especially now that she is going off to college.
Kaitlin, who will turn 19 on Monday, will attend the University of Southern Indiana in the fall where she will study exercise science with hopes of becoming a physical therapist.
She plans on continuing her healthy journey at college. There is a workout room not far from her dorm and she has checked out the healthy meal options on campus, she says.
Since joining the Weighty Matters Fit Crew in June, she says she feels lighter and healthier. For those with conditions that may prevent them or limit them in working out, Kaitlin offers this advice: Keep yourself motivated and make small changes.
She limited her snacks and replaced unhealthy foods with healthy ones, such as switching french fries for vegetables. Kaitlin says she does a lot of grilling.
She also believes her change in eating has helped her eczema. My skin has gotten better, she says.
While eczema has changed her life, it hasn’t prevented her from doing what she likes. She enjoys reading, recently finishing the book The Kiss by James Patterson. She also enjoys traveling. She hopes to visit all 50 states.
Sassmannshausen refers to Kaitlin as a trooper, adding that she has done great handling her condition.
If there is one positive about having eczema, Kaitlin says she doesn’t get zits because her skin is so dry. If I do, it’s like one pimple, she laughs.