- Olympic Swimmer Ryan Murphy and professional surfer Coco Ho are speaking out about living with atopic dermatitis (AD).
- AD affects more than 9.6 million children and about 16.5 million adults in the United States.
- While the exact cause of AD is not known, scientists have detected a genetic component and connection to immune system dysregulation.
Swimmers spend much of their time uncovered and for Olympian Ryan Murphy, exposed skin means his atopic dermatitis (AD) often shows.
Murphy was diagnosed with AD as a child. As the most common type of eczema, the condition affects more than 9.6 million children and about 16.5 million adults in the United States, according to the National Eczema Association (NEA).
“It’s kind of a unique sport to have eczema. I’m in a sport where I’m walking around in a Speedo, so people are seeing a lot of my skin and [I’m] learning how to be comfortable answering questions like what’s on your skin? Is it contagious?” Murphy told Healthline.
For the record, it’s not contagious.
The condition causes flare-ups of rashes and dry skin, which can become infected and burn under water. Murphy often experiences flare-ups all over his body, including on his feet, legs, knees, armpits, and neck.
Sun, stress, sweat, sand, and saltwater can trigger skin lesions, making his time as a swimmer more difficult.
Professional surfer Coco Ho knows Murphy’s struggle all too well. She was diagnosed with AD in her 20s after experiencing an itchy, burning patch behind her ear.
“I originally just thought it was a rash, maybe a stress-related rash that would go away and I ignored it for some time…it would get worse and worse and I’d surf and hop in the salt water and it’d burn, so I realized it was something much more serious than a rash from stress,” she told Healthline.
Both water lovers found treatment and ways to cope with AD so they could continue their time in the water.
To stay mentally strong and focused while swimming despite his AD, Murphy sticks to a well-thought-out plan. His plan includes preventive measures such as moisturizing his skin, using towels made of soft, non-irritating material, showering after being in saltwater or chlorine, and sitting on a towel or blanket at the beach to avoid contact with sand.
“[When] I have a plan, I feel really comfortable and it takes some of the stress away,” he said.
Before competing, Ho focuses on stress reduction by surrounding herself with people who have a calm demeanor, including her closest friends and coach.
“[I also] keep really hydrated [which] helps calm my whole system pretty quickly and try to enjoy everything and not think about itching,” she said.
Right before she enters the ocean, her AD can become inflamed, especially when she’s surfing in hot areas like Hawaii.
“I’ll hop in the water and have a burning sensation for a little bit and I’ll hit a wave and kind of forget about it. [It’s about] learning to make sure I’m treating it before events and keeping my system as cool and calm as I can,” said Ho.
To raise awareness about AD, both Murphy and Ho teamed up with Dupixent for The Now Me: Beach Mode campaign. By sharing their personal journeys with AD, they hope to erase stigma surrounding skin conditions, ignite confidence for others to be comfortable in their own skin, and inspire those with skin conditions to seek medical attention.
“Patients do come in and say, ‘I’ve never worn short sleeves’ or ‘I’ve always worn long sleeves to cover my body,’” Dr. Annabelle Garcia, a dermatologist in San Antonio, told Healthline.
She treats AD patients who have deep scratches on their skin from intense itching as well as patients who have difficulty sleeping due to discomfort.
“It’s important to know that there are treatments and most of the time we can keep eczema under control,” Garcia said.
Dr. Adnan Mir, a member of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology, added that AD can also affect mental health.
“Chronic itch, loss of sleep, and the appearance of eczema can lead to anxiety for both children and parents, poor school performance, and low self-esteem,” he told Healthline. These are problems that should not be ignored, and your doctor and the community can provide invaluable support.”
A healthcare professional can also help explain misunderstandings regarding AD. For instance, Mir pointed out that while there are certain types of eczema that are caused by contact allergies, AD is intrinsic to the skin.
“Your skin acts as a barrier that keeps what’s supposed to be inside (water) in, and what’s outside (potential allergens and irritants) out. When that barrier doesn’t function properly, the skin dries out through water loss, and irritants are allowed to contact the deeper layers of the skin resulting in inflammation,” he explained. “So, the chances are that your child isn’t really allergic to anything that’s causing the eczema — it’s just the nature of their skin.”
He recommended restoring the skin barrier with moisturizing creams and ointments and avoiding harsh soaps, products with fragrances, and hot baths.
Garcia reassured that AD is not related to hygiene. While scientists don’t know the exact cause, they have detected a genetic component and connection to immune system dysregulation.
“But it’s nothing the patient did wrong; it’s nothing that you’re causing. It’s just sensitivity in the skin and studies have shown that there’s different barrier issues on the skin of patients,” said Garcia.
Treatment for AD might include trigger management, medicated ointments, creams, lotions, biologics, phototherapy, as well as complementary and alternative options, according to the NEA.
Learning about the condition and treatment options is what Ho hopes for everyone living with AD. She also aims to make them feel less alone.
“It’s a small intricacy but in your body it’s the biggest thing ever…when I’m in my office, which is the salt water, and it’s burning and I’m trying to focus and compete at the highest level, if I knew 10 years ago, that a lot of other people or other athletes were dealing with this, I’d empathize or feel better about myself,” said Ho.
Murphy agreed. By speaking out, he hopes to help others embrace their AD.
“This is a unique experience that I feel I’ve had growing up. At a really young age, I learned to be comfortable with [AD] and it’s really cool to be part of this campaign and hopefully help everyone feel comfortable with it,” he said.