Traveling for Answers: Riccardo’s Topical Steroid Withdrawal Story

The link between my eczema and my travels had a definite beginning. In 2003, like many of my peers, I was preparing to choose my course of study, steeped in the typical ignorance of an eighteen-year-old, but with an extra ingredient, totally my own—a nonconformity that characterized me throughout my adolescence with eczema. This disease had always been a part of me, like asthma and food allergies, but the redness on my face and arms, at a delicate stage like high school, forged my character. I was not bullied, though I could have been, and the traits I took on in those years later crystallized into my personality. I initially built up these self-protective traits so as to not appear weak or different from the group. They later became foundational to my “I”; sides that only later did I learn to mitigate in their most acute and dysfunctional forms. The response I matured in those crucial years was arrogance. For example, if someone asked me if “I had been slapped in the face,” referring to my red and inflamed skin, I would say yes, and make sharp, nasty comments. Sometimes I’d shift the focus to other topics. I never showed shame during those years, even though I obviously felt the difficulty and brought it home with me. Since the very beginning of my eczema, the only treatments that I was prescribed were steroids in the form of ointment and even pills when my severe asthma was getting worse. I used steroids, as prescribed, non-stop since I was a baby and until my 20s.

While deciding on a course of study, I came across a pamphlet from Ca Foscari University in Venice for a degree in Asian Studies. The brochure decided my future–not only my career, but the evolution of my eczema. 

After my degree I moved to Shanghai and after about three years of living there without a thought in the world, my eczema began to worsen dramatically. At first, my feet, an area that had never been affected by eczema, swelled and turned red. The redness began to spread up my legs, to my abdomen, and covered my arms. Within a month, the redness and swelling covered my entire body and I felt ill with a fever. Frightened, I went to the American Hospital in Shanghai, where they told me, “We gave you cortisone, but your condition is not good; you are losing fluids and you are dehydrated like a burn victim. You absolutely need specialized care.” 

So, with the healthy and usual propensity for change that distinguishes a good traveler, I resigned, left the house, and returned to Italy. 

It was a terrifying twelve hour journey on a thankfully empty flight. In the state I was in, it felt like interminable torture. Alone at an altitude of 10,000 meters in a metal tube, the fierce air-conditioning cold aggravated my chills. I had a fever and a feeling of vague despair that I mitigated by repeatedly asking for hot tea. I was returning to my parents in Italy humbled, desperate and very confused. I hoped it would be a brief interlude, a brief period of healing in Italy, so I could quickly return to China, but I was very much mistaken.

When I arrived in Italy, I went to the hospital in my city. From the Emergency Room, they referred me to the Dermatology Department, where I was immediately admitted for about ten days. After a biopsy, I was diagnosed with chronic spongiotic dermatitis, a severe erythrodermic condition. Everything seemed lost from my hospital bed. It was 2009 – there was no online community for me to look to for info on what was happening to me. I was in despair, in extreme pain, and felt alone. I am now confident to say that the amount of steroids I took for my entire life combined with the high stress and pollution in China led me to a crisis of worsening eczema and TSW. I received more steroids in those days and while my condition quickly got better, in a matter of days I was feeling 100 times worse.

I was broke financially and spiritually, but I eventually moved to Korea. After 8 months of suffering and learning, I recovered from TSW. Moreover, I gained so much knowledge from the Eastern perspective about eczema and allergies. The approach they use in the East was very different from the symptom-managing approach of the West. 

For 14 years, I traveled looking for answers. I met healers and doctors in Brazil, Switzerland, Austria, and more but still my journey was not complete. I was still focusing on myself, considering eczema as a personal, lonely battle. I realized that living this pain and the meaningful solutions I gathered were meaningless if not shared. At the beginning of 2023 I gathered all my materials and prepared the book “Oltre il Capolinea” in Italian, about my journey around the world looking for an answer. That decision triggered a beautiful waterfall of human beings, a group of people sharing experiences and support, with awareness and without judgment. The book has been recently translated to English and it is available on Amazon as “My Atopic Trips”.

What Helped Me

  • Traditional Korean Medicine. It saved my life. Doctors adjust herbal mixes for each individual person person and even change the recipes on a weekly basis. 
  • Change of Diet. Antioxidant soups and smoothies are the bomb. I begin to make them when I start to flare using broccoli, avocado, berries, cabbage, and so on. Since allergies and sensitivities are not universal, there is not a single diet effective for everyone.
  • Supplements. I found success with Zinc, Vitamin B complex, Omega 3,6,9. They give me a clear mind and positive attitude and are said to suppress the immune system reaction and oxidation of our bodies
  • Dupixent. This helped me for a limited time only as the side effects led me to stop it. However, while in a crisis where diet and other approaches were not working, I felt relief in it.
  • Exercise. Another crucial approach to my eczema. If I do not exercise the skin gets immediately worse and when I start my moderate but constant home work out, my skin clears up.
  • Cool Showers/Bath. As simple as it sounds, cold is said to be a booster for the immune system and a powerful anti-inflammatory. For me, it stops itching more than any pill or medication.
  • Rooibos Tea. It is my favourite tea and curbs my itchiness.
  • Reading. I am an avid reader and got a lot out of “The Allergy Solution” by Dr. Galland.
  • Listening to my body. I can now read the signals of my body and prevent a flare from starting. The toxic work environment I was working in was an absolute trigger for my skin and this is a straightforward example of how eczema informs my life. I am grateful for the good decisions I make about my body and soul because of eczema and to prevent a flare. 

What did not help me

  • Western approach of suppressing symptoms 
  • Homeopathy
  • Creams. I mean any cream in the market — I spent thousand of euros trying different ones.