How My Eczema Led to a Viral Infection That Nearly Killed Me


I’m not the first person in my family to be diagnosed with eczema. My mom had eczema growing up, and both my older and younger sister developed it at birth. With so many of us dealing with the condition, you’d think our family would be as knowledgeable as the dermatologists. But when I was young, no one seemed to know that much about eczema. In fact, my siblings and I used to pronounce it e-czema, with the emphasis on the e. I’m still getting used to saying it correctly!

When I was two years old, my sister and I developed eczema herpeticum, a serious viral infection that's more likely to affect children with atopic dermatitis (AD). AD is the most common type of eczema, and is more common in people prone to allergies and asthma. We broke out in raging fevers and developed patches of pus-filled bumps on our skin. I don’t remember much about that time, but apparently when my mom tried to take our clothes off, the material would stick to our skin, causing it to peel off in pieces. At the hospital, no one knew what the infection was; the doctors had to call in specialists. We were quarantined in a giant room all by ourselves for two weeks, and we couldn’t get out of bed. Even today, some of the doctors I’ve visited have never heard of this infection.

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The search for a solution

Growing up, I used many lotions and ointments to try to ease the itch. My mom even tried duct-taping socks to my hands at night, since I would scratch my skin while I slept. That never worked, though—I always pulled them off by the time I woke up. I also had to be very careful about what I ate.I’m allergic to dairy, pork, nuts, and seafood, and once had a terrible reaction to smoked salmon. Even certain lotions or creams that contain nuts will make my skin break out, so I have to read the ingredient labels carefully to see if there are any almond or macadamia oils in products.

To make matters worse, I also have a lot of environmental allergies, mainly dust, pollen, and freshly-cut grass. When I moved from Tumwater, Washington to Los Angeles about ten years ago, I started carrying moisturizer and a spray bottle to mist my face if my skin got too sweaty. I now own a public relations company and a big part of my job involves socializing with others. I represent people in the entertainment industry, and I don’t want to reflect badly on my clients, so I’ve had to reschedule meetings around a breakout.

Managing my eczema today

I’ve been taking a corticosteroid cream for most of my life, but I wish I had other options.Some of the eczema creams and drugs on the market are too expensive for me. But I’ve also made some progress in recent years. After a particularly bad flare a couple of years ago, I found an allergist that I love. He’s by far the most knowledgeable doctor that I’ve gone to in a long time.

I also have a boyfriend who’s really supportive of me. He’s never had any issues with his skin, so he’s had to get used to a lot of my quirks over the past four years. He had to change all his soaps and re-learn how to wash his clothes. Plus, he loves seafood, but he waits until I’m out of town to go on a sushi binge. Then he’ll shower and brush his teeth a few times before I get back.

Right now, my eczema is pretty bad; I’m in the middle of a flare. But this happened to my older sister when she was 30 years old, too. Now she’s 34, and her skin is much better, so I’m hoping in the next few years, I’ll be able to rein my eczema in, as well.

—Ralina Shaw, as told to Maria Masters