Eczema is a chronic skin itch that causes the skin to become red, scaly, bumpy and irritated. It is not contagious but it tends to run in families with a history of eczema or other conditions such as hay fever and asthma, and certain triggers can make it worse, such as stress, allergies and sweating.
There are times when the symptoms of eczema are worse (flare-ups), followed by periods when the skin gets better or clears up completely (remissions). Eczema flare-ups can be especially problematic because excessive rubbing and scratching of the itchy areas can break the skin, which can lead to infection. Eczema can appear anywhere on the body or in just a few areas, and the symptoms are different with each person.
- In babies: a rash often appears on the face and scalpAlison F. Stallings, MD
- In younger children: a rash often appears in the folds of the elbows and knees
- In teens and young adults: a rash often appears on the hands, feet, arms and the backs of knees
Typical eczema symptoms include:
- Dry, scaly skin
- Small bumps that “weep” when scratched
- Redness and swelling of the skin
- Thickening of the skin
There are 7 types of eczema, each with their own symptoms
- Atopic dermatitis
This is the most common form of eczema which is accompanied by asthma and hay fever. It often appears as a red, itchy rash involving the arms, legs and cheeks. It usually starts in childhood, and often gets milder or goes away completely by adulthood (although for some it continues into adulthood).
- Contact dermatitis
If you have red, irritated skin that’s caused by a reaction to substances you touch, there’s a good chance you have contact dermatitis. There are two types: allergic contact dermatitis (an immune system reaction to an irritant such as latex) and irritant contact dermatitis (when a chemical or other substance irritates your skin).
- Dyshidrotic eczema
Dyshidrotic eczema causes small blisters to form on your hands and feet. This type of eczema is more common in women than men.
- Hand eczema
This kind of eczema only affects your hands and typically affects people who work in jobs such as hairdressing or cleaning which regularly involve contact with chemicals that irritate the skin.
Neurodermatitis causes thick, scaly patches to appear on the skin. It often starts in patients with a history of other types of eczema and may be triggered by stress.
- Nummular eczema
This type of eczema causes round, coin-shaped spots to form on the skin. It looks very different from other types of eczema and can itch a great deal.
- Stasis dermatitis
Stasis dermatitis occurs when fluid leaks out of weakened veins into the skin of the lower legs. This fluid causes swelling, redness, itching and pain.ways to avoid eczema flare-ups
If you have eczema, one of the best things you can do is prevent flare-ups before they happen. Based on our years of experience with hundreds of patients with eczema, here are the solutions we have seen the most success with:
- Moisturize your skin
To help prevent eczema outbreaks, make sure your skin is properly moisturized, even when it’s not red and irritated. Apply a thick, penetrating moisturizer after a shower or bath and whenever your skin feels dry and tight.
- Reduce substances that trigger outbreaks
Outbreaks can be triggered or aggravated by certain foods, pollen, pet dander, molds, dust and mites—similar things that trigger asthma attacks. Try to identify the factors that trigger your outbreaks and avoid them as much as possible. This will help delay your next outbreak.
- Take frequent showers
Contrary to what people think, showers help hydrate your skin. Take as many as you like as long as you apply a moisturizer immediately afterward, and use cool or lukewarm water, not hot water.
- Use a humidifier
Low humidity levels (dry air) can trigger an eczema outbreak. Use a humidifier (or several) in your home if the air is dry, particularly during winter.
- Avoid scratching
Scratching damages the skin and starts a vicious cycle of itching-scratching-rash. Scratching can also lead to infection. It’s better to gently rub or pinch the skin rather than scratch it.
- Wear clothing made of 100% cotton
Cotton is not only comfortable on the skin but it allows the skin to breathe, which helps prevent skin irritation. In contrast, synthetic materials, wool, hemp and raw linen tend to irritate the skin and can cause an outbreak.
- Learn to manage your stress
Stress can lead to eczema outbreaks. We recommend any activity that decreases your stress, from physical exercise to meditation to painting, for example.
- Choose your body and facial products carefully
Cosmetics, soaps, hair products, perfumes, scented lotions and shaving creams may contain ingredients that can irritate your skin and trigger eczema outbreaks. The best way to know which products are best for you is to test them on a small area of skin before using them regularly. Leave the product on your skin for at least 24 hours, then check if you’ve had a reaction to it.
- Keep cool, don’t overheat
Excessive heat and intense perspiration can cause eczema outbreaks, so avoid overheating your home, office, car or other indoor space. At night, keep your bedroom relatively cool and use lightweight cotton sheets.
Treatment for eczema
If you’re having frequent eczema flare-ups, your doctor may recommend medication to help you feel better and keep the symptoms under control. The type of medicine recommended will depend on how severe your eczema is and where it appears on your body. Options include over-the-counter (OTC) and/or prescription topical medications (applied to the skin) and oral ones (taken by mouth).
When to see a specialist
Eczema is a chronic skin problem that requires ongoing management by you and your doctor. If it is not improving, talk with your doctor about your concerns. You may need to see a dermatologist for severe or resistant eczema.