What is eczema?

Eczema is a chronic skin condition that causes flare ups of dry, itchy, and inflamed skin. Also called atopic dermatitis, eczema is not contagious and is common for people of all ages. Eczema impacts the skin’s moisture barrier, preventing the skin from retaining moisture and protecting the body and skin from external factors. 

While there is no cure for eczema, there are effective treatments that help manage the symptoms of flare ups and keep the skin hydrated. Lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on eczema management and can lessen the impact of the irritating dry patches. 

What causes eczema?

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The precise cause of eczema is still unknown. Eczema likely develops from a genetic dysfunction, environmental factor, immune system deficiency, or a combination of these. Eczema forms when the skin forms a weak barrier, allowing external bacteria, irritants, or allergens to damage the skin and prevent the skin from retaining moisture. In addition, an imbalance of the skin’s naturally occurring healthy bacteria reduces the body’s ability to fight off infection. 

Even without an exact cause for eczema, doctors are able to pinpoint that the condition is linked to the immune system and that the patches of inflamed skin are a type of immune response the body engages to fight off infection or unfamiliar contaminants. This information helps doctors develop treatment plans for patients with eczema. 

What are symptoms of eczema?

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The appearance and location of eczema symptoms will vary from person to person. Eczema patches can form anywhere on the body and may last for a long time or go away after a short time. 


The most common symptoms of eczema are the following:

  • Dry and cracked skin 
  • Flaky or crusty skin
  • Itchiness 
  • Raised bumps on skin
  • Areas of thick, leathery skin 
  • Rash or swollen skin 

Eczema is typically not painful on its own. However, persistent scratching can form a sore or make the skin sensitive, which can be painful. 

Patches of eczema can occur anywhere on the body. People most commonly experience eczema in the following areas:

  • Hands
  • Elbows
  • Ankles
  • Neck
  • Feet
  • Face, cheeks, lips, or ears 
  • Knees 

Less commonly, eczema could appear in the genital area or on the chest. 

It is important to note that eczema can look different on different skin tones. On people with darker skin tones, eczema can appear purple, gray, or brown. But on lighter skin tone, the irritated patches could look purple, pink, or red. 

Are there any risk factors or groups for eczema?

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Eczema can occur at any age and can affect anyone. You are more likely to develop eczema if you have a family history of the condition. In addition, your chances of eczema are higher if you have allergies, hay fever, or asthma. 

Other risk factors of eczema include having very dry skin or using skincare products with irritants or allergens. Living in cold climates or swampy and hot climates can contribute to eczema flare ups. Stress can also make eczema more likely.

What triggers eczema?

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While the cause of eczema is still unknown, there are several triggers that may contribute to your symptoms that vary person to person. The most common triggers include the following:

  • Skin irritants: Skin irritants like soaps, detergents, and shampoo can bother sensitive skin. Contact with the ingredients in the soaps or with synthetic clothing can cause an eczema flare. In addition, skin irritants like cigarette smoke can have a similar effect. People with a history of eczema should try using non irritating soaps without fragrance and wear clothes with natural fibers like cotton or silk to be comfortable. 
  • Environment: Many environmental factors can trigger eczema. Cold and dry weather or hot and damp weather can leave the skin more vulnerable to dry patches. Other environmental allergens like dust mites, fur, pollen, and mold can irritate the skin. These allergens can be hard to avoid, so people who are exposed to these should manage symptoms with moisturizers and antihistamines. 
  • Food and diet: While the connection between eczema and food allergies is still unclear, certain foods can trigger eczema. If you notice that your flare ups get worse while eating certain foods, an allergy to that food could impact your eczema. Allergies to milk, eggs, peanuts, and wheat are more common triggers.
  • Dry skin: Dry skin is a main trigger of eczema symptoms. When the skin is dry due to climate or lack of moisture, you can expect patches of brittle and rough skin. While symptoms of dry skin can resemble eczema, the two are separate conditions. It is important to prioritize moisturizing your skin and keeping your skin safe from the elements to minimize the impact of your eczema flare ups. 

If you’re diagnosed with eczema, you can discuss your possible triggers with your doctor to know how to prevent some triggers and manage the effects of others. 

How is eczema diagnosed?

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Your doctor will provide an eczema diagnosis during an in-office physical exam. During this appointment, they will take a close look at the skin and assess the symptoms you may have been experiencing. Although eczema is most common among children, you could receive an eczema diagnosis at any age. When you start noticing symptoms, your doctor will help you understand if you have eczema or another skin condition. 

Because symptoms of eczema can resemble other skin conditions, an in-person office visit is essential to a proper diagnosis. If your doctor cannot confirm an eczema diagnosis in the office, they may order different tests to rule out other conditions. These tests could include an allergy test, a blood test, or a skin biopsy. 

How is eczema treated?

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The right treatment plan for eczema depends on the person. Each person has their own eczema symptoms and triggers that make no two cases of eczema alike. Once diagnosed, you can communicate with your doctor to discuss the best treatment options for your condition. Even though eczema has no cure, there are effective lifestyle changes and medications that can help with the appearance and the comfort of your skin. 


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There are a variety of medications that can help manage your eczema: 

  • Topical steroids: Steroid ointments apply directly on patches of eczema and help reduce inflammation and itchiness. 
  • Oral medications: In more severe cases, medications like immunosuppressants or corticosteroids may be necessary to work to reduce more serious cases. While the medication may reduce symptoms, stopping the medication may make symptoms worse. 
  • Antibiotics: Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if eczema occurs alongside an infection of the skin. 

Home Treatments

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Home treatments and lifestyle adjustments can make a big difference in managing your eczema symptoms: 

  • Use good skincare products: Using gentle cleansers with simple ingredients can help protect your skin from irritants and can add back lost moisture. Following up any cleansing with thorough moisturizing can help retain your skin’s barrier. 
  • Choose good fabrics: Wearing natural materials and opting for gentle bed sheets and towels can help let your skin breathe and prevent scratching. 
  • Avoid triggers: Being aware of your eczema triggers can help you avoid them as best as you can and anticipate when you may get an eczema flare up. 
  • Adapt to the weather: Smart use of humidifiers in dry climates can help your skin balance its moisture. In addition, monitoring your activity and sweat levels can help you make sure you are not overheating and aggravating your skin. 

Should you see a doctor for eczema?

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Since eczema can be uncomfortable and can lead to a rash or infection, you should see a doctor when the early symptoms of eczema begin. Eczema can be more common in children, so if you notice symptoms of eczema on your child, you should see a doctor. Without medical attention, eczema can become so uncomfortable that it affects your sleep and daily life. In addition, eczema can lead to infection through open sores or cuts. If it looks like your skin may have an infection, you will need to consult your doctor. 

Signs that your skin may be infected include yellow scabs, pus, or fever. Talk with your health care provider if you experience any of these symptoms or think you may have eczema to get a proper diagnosis and begin forming a treatment plan.

What is the outlook for people living with eczema?

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Though eczema can be a bothersome skin condition that flares up over time, people can use simple treatments to improve their daily lives and help ease their eczema symptoms. Many people have a positive outlook on their life with eczema. 

Eczema is not life-threatening and has very simple management techniques. Children who develop eczema at a young age can outgrow the condition over time and never see it resurface. Others may continue to experience eczema flare ups. However, with treatments and lifestyle adjustments, eczema is very simple to manage. 

Eczema does have some potential complications such as bacterial and viral infections. The condition of the skin with eczema leaves the skin more vulnerable to such infections, so people with eczema need to be consistent with their care routine and monitor symptoms as they occur.