Eczema is a chronic skin disorder that involves scaly and itchy rashes. as well as blistering, weeping, or peeling of the skin. Atopic eczema is the most common type.
Infantile eczema; Atopic dermatitis; Dermatitis - atopic; Eczema - atopic
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Eczema is most common in infants. Many people outgrow it by early adulthood. The condition tends to run in families.
The following can make eczema symptoms worse:
- Allergies to pollen, mold, dust mites, or animals
- Colds or the flu
- Contact with rough materials
- Dry skin
- Exposure to environmental irritants
- Exposure to water
- Feeling too hot or too cold
- Fragrances or dyes added to skin lotions or soaps
Typical skin changes may include:
- Blisters with oozing and crusting
- Ear discharge or bleeding
- Raw areas of the skin from scratching
- Skin coloring changes -- more or less coloring than the normal skin tone (See: Skin abnormally dark or light)
- Skin redness or inflammation around the blisters
- Thickened or leather-like areas, called lichenification, which can occur after long-term irritation and scratching
Both the type of rash and where the rash appears can depend on the age of the patient:
- In children younger than age 2, skin lesions begin on the face, scalp, hands, and feet. It is often a crusting, bubbling, or oozing rash.
- In older children and adults, the rash is more commonly seen on the inside of the knees and elbows, as well as the neck, hands, and feet.
- During a severe outbreak, rashes may occur anywhere on the body.
Itching, which is sometimes intense, almost always occurs. Itching may start even before the rash appears.
Signs and tests
Diagnosis is primarily based on:
- Appearance of the skin
- Personal and family history
The health care provider should examine the lesions to rule out other possible causes. A skin lesion biopsy may be performed, but is not always needed to make the diagnosis.
Allergy skin testing may be helpful for people with:
- Difficult-to-treat eczema
- Other allergy symptoms
CARE AT HOME
Taking care of your skin at home may reduce the need for medications.
Avoid scratching the rash or skin if you can:
- Relieve the itch by using a cold compress and taking antihistamines to reduce severe itching.
- Keep your child's fingernails cut short. Consider light gloves if nighttime scratching is a problem.
Keep the skin moist (called lubricating or moisturizing the skin). Use ointments (such as petroleum jelly), creams, or lotions 2 - 3 times a day. Moisturizers should be free of alcohol, scents, dyes, fragrances, or other chemicals.
Avoid anything that makes your symptoms worse. This may include:
- Foods such as dairy, peanuts, eggs, or wheat (always discuss with your doctor first)
- Irritants such as wool and lanolin
- Strong soaps or detergents, as well as chemicals and solvents
- Sudden changes in body temperature and stress, which may cuase sweating and worsen the condition
- Triggers that cause allergy symptoms
When washing or bathing:
- Keep water contact as brief as possible and use less soap than usual. Short, cooler baths are better then long, hot baths.
- Do not scrub or dry the skin too hard or for too long.
- After bathing, it is important to apply lubricating creams, lotions, or ointment on the skin while it is damp. This will help trap moisture in the skin.
Antihistamines taken by mouth may help with itching or if you have allergies. Often you can buy them without a prescription.
- Some antihistamines can cause sleepiness, but may help with scratching while sleeping.
- Newer antihistamines cause little or no sleepiness. Some are available over the counter. These medications include fexofenadine (Allegra), loratadine (Claritin, Alavert), and cetirizine (Zyrtec).
Most causes of atopic eczema are treated with medications that are placed directly on the skin or scalp (called topical medicines):
- At first, you will probably be prescribed a mild cortisone (or steroid) cream or ointment. If this doesn't work, you may need a stronger steroid medicine. You may need different strengths of steroids for different areas of skin.
- Medicines called topical immunomodulators (TIMs) may be prescribed for anyone over 2 years old. TIMs include tacrolimus (protopic) and pimecrolimus (Elidel). Ask your doctor about concerns over a possible cancer risk associated with the use of these medicines.
- Creams or ointments that contain coal tar or anthralin may be used for thickened areas.
Other medicines that may be used include:
- Oral or injected corticosteroids when the eczema is severe
- Antibiotic creams or pills if the skin is infected
- Allergy shots (immunotherapy)
Eczema is a chronic condition, but you can control it with treatment, by avoiding irritants, and by keeping the skin well-moisturized.
In children, it often clears beginning around age 5 - 6, but flareups will often occur. In adults, it is generally a long-term or recurring condition.
People with eczema tend to have dry skin that flares up more in the winter, when the air is cold and dry.
- Infections of the skin caused by bacteria, fungi, or viruses
- Permanent scars
Calling your health care provider
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if:
- Eczema does not respond to moisturizers or avoiding allergens
- Symptoms worsen or treatment is ineffective
- You have signs of infection (such as fever, redness, pain)
Studies have shown that children who are breast-fed are less likely to get eczema. This is also true when the nursing mother has avoided cow's milk in her diet. Other dietary restrictions may include eggs, fish, peanuts, and soy.
Excema and Hand Dermatitis. In: Habif TP, ed. Clinical Dermatology. 4th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2004:chap 3.
Lewis-Jones S, Mugglestone MA; Guideline Development Group. Management of atopic eczema in children aged up to 12 years: summary of NICE guidance. BMJ. 2007;335:1263-1264.
Ascroft DM, Chen LC, Garside R, Stein K, Williams HC. Topical pimecrolimus for eczema. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Oct 17;(4):CD005500.
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.