Returning to Edinburgh after the training weekend part of me was keen to keep up the good work. But another part of me – my skin to be precise – was decidedly against the idea. In the pool sessions over the weekend people had asked me whether I was having an allergic reaction to something, based on the red blotches all over my back.
In fact I’d developed eczema just two months previously – something I’d never suffered with before. Although I’d been using prescribed emollient moisturiser and steroid creams to deal with the inflammation the eczema seemed to be getting worse and more widespread, and the itching was driving me to distraction. My legs were bruised and scabbed from the itching, and my back was covered in red, angry patches. I knew that itching wasn’t helping, but I found I was often having a good go at my skin without realising it. I was also waking up scratching my skin off.
I resolved to head back to my doctor as something needed to give. She agreed that the eczema was not well controlled, so prescribed a 5-day course of oral steroids (prednisolone), and instructed me not to go swimming for at least three weeks, until my skin healed. This was another blow to the training plan, particularly as I’d only just got back on track after the accident.
I had no idea what had triggered this condition, and why it had only started recently. I’d read that it could be related to stress or a change in diet, washing detergent or skincare products, but none of those factors particularly applied to me when the eczema started. My doctor suspected that chlorinated water was the culprit, but as I’d been swimming regularly for years I thought there was more to it.
I began to notice that my eczema was worst in places where my sports clothing had been rubbing, so started to investigate this. The technical t-shirts, running tights, swimsuits and underwear I’d been using – specifically for their comfort, elasticity, wicking properties, low absorption and chlorine resistance – were all constructed from manmade fabrics containing polyester, polyamide, lycra, nylon and elastane. These materials can irritate the skin, but ‘textile dermatitis’ (eczema = dermatitis) might also be triggered by the dyes, chemical additives, and finishing resins used to give them their sought-after properties.
But I’d been wearing the same technical clothing for years, so why hadn’t I developed eczema before? Here I should probably admit that until I started training for this event my ‘training’ had been rather half-hearted. To disguise my laziness I clung to the ‘Training is Cheating’ mantra, and had managed my previous triathlons on quite minimal preparation. It was not uncommon for me to start a triathlon having not previously swum in open water that year, or having not been on my road bike for months. I had a base level of fitness that could get me round these short events. Now that I was training more, out of necessity, I was exposing my skin to technical fabrics more often, and any chemicals in the fabric were given more opportunity to irritate my skin. The alternatives would be to use non-technical clothing, or to not train as much – neither of which were ideal options. To help me work out which types of clothing I might need to avoid my doctor has referred me to a skin specialist for allergy patch testing. But, I could be completely wrong, so I’ll need to keep looking into other possibilities. Hopefully I get to the bottom of the problem soon…