What to know about eczema
Eczema is a condition wherein patches of skin become inflamed, itchy, cracked, and rough. Some types can also cause blisters.
Different types and stages of eczema affect 31.6 million people in the United States, which is over 10% of the population.
Many people use the word eczema when referring to atopic dermatitis, which is the most common type. The term atopic refers to a collection of conditions that involve the immune system, including atopic dermatitis, asthma, and hay fever. The word dermatitis refers to inflammation of the skin.
Certain foods, such as nuts and dairy, can trigger symptoms. Environmental triggers include smoke, pollen, soaps, and fragrances. Eczema is not contagious.
Some people outgrow the condition, whereas others will continue to have it throughout adulthood.
This article will explain what eczema is and discuss its symptoms, treatments, causes, and types.
Types of eczema
Eczema includes conditions such as:
- Contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is caused by contact with irritants. Burning, itching, and redness occur. The inflammation goes away when the irritant is removed.
- Dyshidrotic eczema. Dyshidrotic dermatitis affects fingers, palms of the hands, and soles of the feet. It causes itchy, scaly patches of skin that flake or become red, cracked, and painful. The condition is more common in women.
- Nummular eczema. Nummular dermatitis causes dry, round patches of skin in the winter months. It usually affects the legs. It’s more common in men.
Symptoms of eczema
The main symptom of eczema is itchy, dry, rough, flakey, inflamed, and irritated skin. It can flare up, subside, and then flare up again.
Eczema can occur anywhere but usually affects the arms, inner elbows, backs of the knees, or head (particularly the cheeks and the scalp). It’s not contagious, and, in some cases, becomes less severe with age.
Other symptoms include:
- Intense itching
- Red or brownish-grey patches
- Small, raised bumps that ooze fluid when scratched
- Crusty patches of dried yellowish ooze, which can signal an infection
- Thickened, scaly skin
Scratching eczema further irritates and inflames the skin. This can cause infections that must be treated with antibiotics.
The cause of eczema is not fully understood. But it’s believed to be triggered by an overactive immune system that responds aggressively when exposed to irritants.
Eczema is sometimes caused by an abnormal response to proteins that are part of the body. Normally, the immune system ignores proteins that are part of the human body and attacks only the proteins of invaders, such as bacteria or viruses.
In eczema, the immune system loses the ability to tell the difference between the two, which causes inflammation.
An eczema flare-up is when one or more eczema symptoms appear on the skin. Common triggers of eczema flare-ups include:
- Chemicals found in cleaners and detergents that dry out the skin
- Rough scratchy material, like wool
- Synthetic fabrics
- Raised body temperature
- Temperature changes
- The sudden drop in humidity
- Food allergies
- Animal dander
- Upper respiratory infections
How is eczema diagnosed?
There’s no specific test that can be used to diagnose eczema. If your doctor has seen the condition before, they may be able to recognize it by looking at your symptoms.
A patch test can pinpoint certain allergens that trigger symptoms, like skin allergies associated with contact dermatitis (a type of eczema).
During a patch test, an allergen is applied to a patch that’s placed on the skin. If you’re allergic to that allergen, your skin will become inflamed and irritated.
A dermatologist, allergist, or primary care doctor can help you identify the correct treatment for eczema. You may also find it helpful to combine more than one treatment.
Lifestyle changes such as stress reduction and improved sleep can reduce the likelihood of an eczema flare-up. Avoid irritants, like rough fabrics, harsh soaps, and detergents. Cold weather can also dry out the skin and trigger flare-ups.
People with atopic dermatitis should avoid scratching. To prevent breaking the skin, it can help to rub rather than scratch the itchy areas.
Because dry skin can trigger an eczema flare-up, a dermatologist can recommend an ointment- or cream-based moisturizer that will help soothe your skin.