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Eczema

Eczema is a chronic inflammatory skin disease that may be linked to immune hypersensitivity disorders such as allergies. Researchers believe the cause is a genetic mutation that weakens the skin barrier and makes it easier for irritants to penetrate.

Last Modified: September 21, 2022
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What Is Eczema?

Eczema is a chronic skin condition. The term eczema refers to many different types of skin inflammatory conditions. Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of eczema. 

Other forms of eczema include:
  • Dyshidrosis: This type is also called dyshidrotic eczema or pompholyx. People with dyshidrosis develop small, intensely itchy blisters on their palms, the sides of their fingers and the bottoms of their feet.
  • Nummular Dermatitis: This form is also known as nummular eczema. Nummular dermatitis presents distinct coin-shaped rashes on the skin.
  • Seborrheic Dermatitis: This type is also called seborrheic eczema or dandruff. People with seborrheic dermatitis develop itchy, greasy red patches on their skin. Patches of white or yellowish flakes may also cover the skin, especially on the scalp.

Itchy rashes characterize this condition that impacts approximately 15% of the population with at least one flare-up in their lifetime. Symptoms are not constant and may come and go over the course of a person’s life.

What Causes Eczema?

Researchers have not identified what causes eczema. It is believed to be based on genetic history because the condition often runs in families. Research suggests it may be related to defects in the skin barrier that allow irritants to pass through more easily.

Eczema is linked to immune hypersensitivity disorders, including allergies and asthma. Around 30% of babies with severe eczema also have at least one food allergy. 

Eczema often flares in response to certain triggers. These things do not cause the condition, but they may aggravate symptoms. These triggers include:

  • Allergens: Airborne allergens, such as pet dander or pollen, and food allergies, such as allergies to eggs, dairy or peanuts, can trigger eczema symptoms.
  • Temperature and Environmental Conditions: Cold temperatures and damp conditions may trigger an eczema flare. So can high temperatures, especially if people sweat excessively as a result.
  • Harsh Soaps and Other Chemicals: Exposure to harsh chemicals in soaps, cleansers, detergents and other cleaning products can cause eczema flare-ups.
  • Infections: Skin infections can trigger eczema in affected areas. Also, avoid exposure to the herpes simplex virus, which can trigger both eczema and a dangerous immune response.
  • Clothing Materials: Wearing clothes made from synthetic materials, such as nylon or polyester, or scratchy wool can irritate your skin and trigger your eczema.
  • Hormonal Changes: Women with eczema may experience flare-ups during pregnancy or menstruation.

Eczema isn’t contagious. You can’t catch it or transmit it to another person through close contact. If you and someone close to you both develop eczema, it may be because of a shared trigger in your environment.

What Are Symptoms of Eczema?

Itching is a primary symptom of all forms of eczema. Itching may be mild enough to ignore or severe enough to disrupt daily activities.

Aside from itching, you may also experience:
  • A red rash (which may appear gray, purple or brown on darker skin)
  • Raw, oozing skin
  • Scaly, patchy looking skin
  • Dry, flaky skin
  • Swollen and discolored skin

Eczema presents differently depending on your age. Baby eczema often shows up on an infant’s face and sometimes in the diaper area. It usually produces itchy, scaly sores that can leak fluid when scratched.  

Children are more likely to develop eczema on the inside of their elbows and knees as well as on their neck, wrists and ankles. Repeated scratching causes thick and bumpy skin.

Adults with eczema usually experience fewer flare-ups than children. They also tend to develop rashes in the creases of their knees and elbows as well as on their hands and around their eyes. 

The skin in breakout areas often darkens and becomes scaly. Adults with eczema may also have very dry, easily irritated skin in general.

Eczema Complications

Mild cases of eczema often clear up with few issues, but severe eczema can lead to many complications. People with severe eczema have a higher rate of skin infections than the general population. 

Babies are especially vulnerable to infections. They may scratch their rashes or rub the rash against carpeting and other rough surfaces, which can contaminate the skin with bacteria. 

Adults with eczema around their eyes are at risk of a variety of eye complications, including pinkeye, an inflamed cornea and keratoconus (changes in the shape of the cornea). If left untreated, these problems can result in permanent damage and vision loss.

Advanced cases of eczema may lead to permanent skin changes, such as thickened or leathery textured skin and knots on the surface of the skin. People who frequently scratch their eczema may develop scars.

Itching may also cause sleep issues, especially in children. The impact of lack of sleep can be severe, disrupting daily functioning and even leading to anxiety or depression. 

How to Treat Eczema

The extent of eczema treatment depends on the severity of the outbreak. Doctors treat mild cases with over-the-counter cortisone creams and oral antihistamines (to help control itching) and guidance on avoiding triggers.

Oral or topical steroids may be prescribed for severe cases. Dermatologists may also prescribe immunomodulators, which are medications that change your immune system’s response to allergens. 

When to See a Doctor for Eczema

Your primary care provider may refer you to a dermatologist for further care. See a doctor for your eczema if:

  • A fever develops
  • You develop a skin infection
  • It causes you pain
  • You have uncontrollable itching

Dermatologists can provide skin care suggestions and other health information that may help reduce the severity of future flare-ups.

Can You Prevent Eczema?

Medical professionals do not know how to prevent eczema outbreaks in any age group. Avoiding triggers, once you identify them, should help keep the condition under control.

Apart from triggers, choose soft, comfortable clothing and gentle, nonirritating soaps as part of your skin care regimen. Use heaters, air conditioners, dehumidifiers and other devices that can regulate the ambient temperature. 

Avoid any allergens that affect you. If you cannot avoid them, see your doctor for a prescription to help you manage your allergies.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.
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