Eczema and the healing waters of Avène-les-Bains

Sara Hannan describes her family’s experience with the healing waters of Avène-les-Bains in south western France - a hydrotherapy centre which is renowned for its success with eczema and psoriasis

If you are racking your brains for a present for an eczema or psoriasis sufferer this Christmas, suggest a stay in Avène-les-Bains, a tiny village in beautiful south-west France and home to the Avène hydrotherapy centre.

Sadly, British dermatologists seem to be unaware of the existence of the healing waters of Avène - which they can now prescribe for their patients on the NHS. Instead too often they rely on drugs which, if they work at all, suppress rather than cure.

My battle with eczema
My own battle with eczema began in my first months. Of course in 1971 breastfeeding was out of fashion; indeed my mother was given an injection to dry up her milk, without even being asked if she wanted to try feeding.

We now know that dairy products are highly problematic for atopic people. If you have eczema, whether or not you have ‘tested’ positive for a dairy allergy, you should try cutting out dairy products for a couple of months.

Back then - as is sometimes the case even now - no connection was made between diet and skin conditions, so I bumbled along with eczema and allergies, hayfever and ‘bronchitis’ (actually misdiagnosed asthma) and stuffed full of steroids, antibiotics and antihistamines. I reacted so violently to one particular vaccination that my mother was brave enough to refuse the rest.

Dietary change
Relief came when I was about eight in the form of a herbalist, who changed our diets. She rid my mother, permanently, of rheumatoid arthritis and me of my eczema for the remainder of my childhood years.

My next flare-up came after O-levels. I now realise that this was not to do with the stress of exams, but was the result of a brace which was slowly dislocating the disks of cartilage in my jaw, and thereby placing my body under terrible strain. The holistic dentist who diagnosed my jaw problem three years ago was convinced that most of my health problems (eczema, candida and digestive problems) were due to the misalignment of my jaw.

My skin worsened in my late twenties, although it usually improved with homeopathy and diet. But, after a particularly stressful period at work, the final straw came when I became pregnant with my first child. I was covered in eczema and riddled with candida. My body went into overdrive to protect my baby, but left the rest of me in a terrible state. I’d chanced upon an article about Avène, and as soon as I got to 14 weeks, I packed my bags and got on a train (flying plays havoc with dry skin) to Montpellier.

First trip to Avène
I had no idea what to expect – the brochures at the time weren’t exactly explanatory – and even though I speak French, I hadn’t understood that the recommended stay is three weeks, so was only booked in for the minimum two. But the effects were astounding.

My anti-candida diet and homeopathy had been having some effect, but as soon as I began the daily baths and showers and to drink the water my skin began to heal, and I returned home with clear skin and - so I was told - ‘blooming’. My skin did take a slight turn for the worse in the final trimester (an indication that there were still underlying problems), but that first short visit to Avène had given me a respite in the middle of an otherwise difficult pregnancy, and had introduced me to a magical haven where I have been able to return almost every summer since.

Subsequent trips
On each of my subsequent visits, my skin has improved. We did not go last year - my skin was fine and I’d just given birth to my second daughter - but I did need a healing boost this year when, after lots of stress, old (bad) dietary habits returned and chickenpox got me. I firmly believe that I can be completely eczema free again, but I shall probably need at least another summer holiday in Avène.

Amy Dunn’s Psoriasis
Amy is a beautiful, confident teenager whose body just seven years ago was so badly (98%) covered with psoriasis that her doctors were threatening to take her parents to court to force chemotherapy on her. A newspaper article about Avène led them there, and the rest, like her psoriasis, is history. Her family has bought a house nearby, and they return at least once a year.

My daughter
My elder daughter, on the other hand, needed only two visits to banish her eczema. I did everything I knew possible at the time to prevent her from developing allergies or eczema: breastfeeding for 17 months, and exclusively for seven; super-careful weaning and avoidance of the usual suspects, dairy and wheat, until long after she was one; goat’s milk to drink rather than cow’s; no citrus and no red fruits or vegetables (all terrible for eczema); no vaccinations and only homeopathic medicine - I’ve never owned a bottle of Calpol.

But despite all of this, she would still develop the odd, small patch of eczema. We were always able to clear it with homeopathy, cranial osteopath or the avoidance of certain foods (identified by my homeopath’s VEGA machine), but the tendency was clearly there.

Two weeks in Avène, two years in a row, aged one and two, with one 20-minute bath a day, were enough for her. The water initially seemed to ‘bring it all out’, much to my husband’s alarm. However, his scepticism vanished - along with my daughter’s eczema. She is now nearly five, and has had completely clear skin since.

The treatment
The Avène centre can feel quite medical - worlds away from the pampering you might expect at a health farm or spa. You do see a doctor your arrival but the actual treatments - baths, showers, sprays and compresses with nothing but the water - last for only about one hour in total each day.

So it is the water alone that has these extraordinary effects. There is plenty of scientific literature on its healing, soothing and anti-inflammatory properties, and an ongoing research programme. Personally, I would like to see them do more research into the healing action of the water on the gut, as it is absolutely clear to me that drinking the water is just as important as being immersed in it.

The staff also run fabulously informative workshops on how to manage your skin on a daily basis. I wish every British dermatologist knew a few of their tips on keeping clean and hydrated and avoiding scratching which breaks the skin. For example:

• Keep drinking water and apply emollient regularly, but only thinly. More than a thin film acts as a breeding ground for bacteria.
• Do not scratch but tap the itching spot, use a massage toy, or rub with a pebble from the beach.

If I have one criticism of the centre, it is that they never discuss diet, which to me is so crucial in the management, prevention and cure of eczema and psoriasis.

Skin conditions are complex and there is never one simple answer. My success has depended on a range of complementary practitioners and the amazing eczema diet from The Alternative Centre in west London (020 7381 2298; as well as visits to Avène. But it is at Avène that I have experienced the most dramatic improvements. May others find it equally helpful.


Staying in Avène
The Hotel Val d’Orb, next door to the centre is very reasonably priced. They also offer self-catering. Check (33) 467 23 44 45. The tourist office in the village has other suggestions.

The treatment
It costs around 30 euros a day, which includes the bath and 2 other treatments (enough for most people) plus about 100 euros for consultations with the doctor.

To book - contact:
(33) 4 67 23 41 87

Skincare Products
Avene also produce a wide range of skincare products.

For the range available in the UK, click here.
And for the range available in the US, click here.

Getting treatment on the NHS

The basic information for securing NHS funding to be treated at the Avene Hydrotherapy Centre is as follows:

People with eczema and psoriasis who want to visit Avene for treatment should ask their GP to refer them to a dermatological consultant who will recommend them for treatment to the Primary Care Trust. They also need to get an E112 from their local post office to apply for funding (this covers a set period of medical treatment only and excludes travel or accommodation costs).
This referral system between UK and other EU countries is only possible, if:
a) the particular therapy is not available in the UK
b) Access time for treatment is outside the NHS
c) Patient is an EU National
The NHS will only cover the medical costs incurred (not accommodation or travel expenses).

Great Ormond Street Children
Two years ago in Avène, I witnessed the arrival of a group of children from Great Ormond Street. It was distressing to see their suffering, which did not seem to have been alleviated by conventional steroid and antibiotic treatments. They had not, apparently, had a word of dietary advice. Without exception they were tucking into sweets, fizzy drinks, orange juice, pains au chocolat, cheese, hamburgers, chips and tomato ketchup - all foods known to aggravate or even cause eczema.

The children got better over the three weeks that they were there. In some cases, the results were truly dramatic - one girl with psoriasis was able to abandon her wheelchair after only a couple of days - others would require further visits. I couldn’t help but wonder how they would have fared had they been following a more eczema-friendly diet.


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