EVENTUALLY I’ve been empowered by eczema. I just wish I’d known as a teenager what I know now.”

Suzanne Watson developed severe eczema in her early teens. At times her skin was so raw it looked burned and treatment regimes included tar baths, bandaging, layers of creams and baths with her hands held to prevent scratching. She just wanted to hide away.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Suzanne's eczema was so severe she ended up in hospital

Today Suzanne, 49, is president of Bradford Chamber of Commerce - only the second female president in its 169-year history - a governor at Bradford Grammar School and a trustee of the National Eczema Society. As MD of award-winning Ilkley-based PR consultancy Approach, which she launched almost 20 years ago, Suzanne is no stranger to fronting media campaigns, being photographed, speaking to the Press, chairing meetings and presenting at events. Last year, she hosted her first Annual Chamber Dinner, speaking in front of more than 200 business leaders, local government representatives and celebrities.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Suzanne is President of Bradford Chamber of Commerce

But the journey hasn’t been easy. To highlight National Eczema Week, here’s Suzanne’s story: “After battling with the horrific disfigurement, pain and shame that eczema caused through my teens and early 20s I never thought I’d be eczema free. As a young journalist and PR consultant I found it difficult to look people in the eye during interviews and meetings because I was brutally aware of how ‘different’ I looked. I used to gaze longingly at anyone with ‘normal’ skin.

“I’d get scared during eczema flare-ups because I was losing control. I couldn’t stop myself from scratching, I’d realise that with my own bare hands, I was mutilating myself. And if it wasn’t with my hands I’d use scissors, pen lids, rulers, combs - anything to relieve the torment of the itch.

“I truly didn’t want to bring children into the world who might suffer as I suffered. And I certainly didn’t want to continue working in a world where I felt judged and exposed.”

Suzanne’s eczema improved when she became pregnant with her daughter Melissa in 1999. Three years later she had a son, Ben, who has gone on to develop severe eczema, while Melissa suffers mildly with patches on her scalp and hands.

Says Suzanne: “Ben’s face and the creases of his elbows and knees were the most badly affected. As a baby, I’d slather him in thick, greasy emollient and put body bandages on him to help protect him from scratching - uncontrollable whether you’re a baby, child or an adult - and help the creams to work better.

“Because we both suffer with eczema, when Ben was younger we considered ourselves quite exclusive. He would tell me to stop scratching and I’d encourage him to rub rather than scratch. He’s now 17 so self-manages his skin. It isn’t easy and his flare-ups, like mine, can be caused by stress or allergens. But with my experience and his resilience, it doesn’t often get us down."

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Ben had eczema from being a baby

“The good thing is, I understand just how he feels and I think that’s hugely important. Feeling isolated and like nobody can possibly understand is one of the most distressing and common elements of living with the condition. The key is understanding the signs and recognising that when your skin fails you, it can impact on your emotional wellbeing as well as your physical wellbeing. In my teens when my eczema took hold, the way I looked and the pain of my skin was all-consuming, making the condition even worse to cope with.

“Eczema does rear its head today but I’m old enough and wise enough to take it more in my stride. The itch remains the worst thing to cope with. The red, angry appearance of a flare-up and the legacy of having ‘older-looking’ dry skin is something I’ve learned to live with. I certainly didn’t think my eczema would ever be anything other than a negative in my life. But because of it, I’ve become stronger, unexpectedly empowered and absolutely more determined than ever to be a voice which offers support, comfort and strength to others going through their own, very personal, eczema journey.”

Those living with eczema pay a heavy price in lost opportunities throughout their lives, according to a major new patient survey, ‘Eczema Unmasked’ released for National Eczema Week (running until September 19) by National Eczema Society and LEO Pharma. It says 89 per cent of adults confirmed that having eczema has significantly reduced their quality of life, with nearly half saying it had affected their education, 28 per cent stating it had a negative impact on their career - rising to 48 per cent amongst those with severe eczema - and one in 10 having had a relationship end due to their condition.

The survey also reveals how eczema’s impact on every aspect of life takes a substantial psychological toll on sufferers, with 74 per cent saying it had negatively impacted their mental health, leaving them feeling depressed, anxious and socially isolated. Despite this, less than half had been offered access to emotional or psychological support.

“As well as itchy, cracked, bleeding skin, eczema drives many decisions, from what you wear to where you go on holiday,” says NES chief executive Andrew Proctor. “If you live with eczema you have to constantly plan. Set against a time-intensive, messy skincare regime and disturbed sleep, it can be all-consuming.”

The research highlights the wider impact on families, with a third regularly cancelling family activities or trips because of their child’s eczema. One in five parents felt it damaged their relationship with their other children.

A quarter of children with eczema have low self-esteem, with many parents saying it affected their ability to make friendships. And 35 per cent said eczema affected their child’s attendance at school, either because they felt too ill or had a GP or hospital appointment, while 37 per cent felt it affected their performance at school.

Professor Andrew Wright, Senior Dermatologist at Bradford Hospitals, says: “One aspect of the research that particularly struck me was how many patients are struggling to get timely treatment. Eczema can rapidly worsen so it’s vital to have immediate access to specialist advice.

"What’s evident from this report is that we need to take eczema more seriously, by raising awareness, improving access to appropriate medical care and increasing the range of treatments available, or future generations will pay a heavy price.”

* Visit eczema.org, call 0800 448 0818. Email helpline@eczema.org. Instagram: @eczemasociety