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Medically reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD

Your skin is red and sore. It may even look scaly. You itch like crazy. You know you haven't been near poison ivy and you don't have chickenpox, so what's going on? It might be eczema.

What Is Eczema?

Eczema (say: EG-zeh-muh) makes your skin dry, red, and itchy. Sometimes you may even break out in a rash. It's a chronic (say: KRAH-nik) condition, which means that it comes and goes, but it can be with you for a long time.

If you have eczema, you're not alone. Lots of kids get it, usually before they're 5 years old, but you can get it when you're older too. The good news is that more than half of the kids who have eczema today will be over it by the time they're teenagers.

Eczema is also called atopic dermatitis (say: ay-TOP-ik der-muh-TIE-tis).

Why Do Kids Get Eczema?

Skin has special cells that react when they come in contact with anything that irritates them. They make the skin inflamed to protect it. If you have eczema, these cells overreact when something triggers them and they start to work overtime. That's what makes your skin red, sore, and itchy.

No one is really sure why people get eczema. It's not contagious — no one can catch it from you and you can't catch it from anyone else. Kids who get eczema often have family members with hay fever (it makes them sneeze and have a runny nose), asthma (trouble breathing), or other things known as "atopic" conditions.

More than half of the kids who get eczema will also someday develop hay fever or asthma themselves. Eczema is not an allergy itself, but allergies can be a trigger for eczema. That means that if you have allergies to things like dust or animal dander, your eczema may flare up sometimes.

Aside from allergies, some things that can set off eczema include:

  • soaps, detergents, or perfumes
  • hot and sweaty skin
  • dry winter air with little moisture
  • other things that can irritate your skin, like scratchy fabrics (like wool)

How Do I Know If I Have Eczema?

If you have eczema, the rash may go away at first. But then it comes back again and again.

Not all rashes itch. But eczema is itchy, itchy, itchy! It often starts in the folds inside your elbows and on the back of your knees. It can also be on your face and other parts of your body. Many things besides eczema can cause a rash. That's why your doctor is the best person to see to figure out what's causing your rash.

How Can I Deal With Eczema?

You may need a moisturizer (ointment or cream) to control the dryness and itchiness. Some people need stronger medicines called corticosteroids. Steroid ointment or cream rubbed on skin can help calm the inflammation (when skin is red and swollen).

Your doctor might suggest you try an antihistamine, a medicine that's either a pill to swallow or a liquid. It can help control the itching and help you sleep at night. If all that scratching leads to an infection, you may need an antibiotic. None of these eczema medicines will cure you forever, but they can help make your skin more comfortable and less red.

Here are some other important steps to take:

  • Don't scratch the itch! This might seem impossible, but do your best not to. When you scratch, it makes your skin sore and sometimes more itchy. The skin can even break open, bleed, and get infected with bacteria. If you have a super-itchy spot, wet a washcloth with cool water and apply it to the skin.
  • Keep your fingernails cut short. You're less likely to break your skin open if you scratch an itch.
  • Take short baths or showers with warm water. Hot water can make you itch more. Have your mom or dad ask your doctor if it's OK for you to use oatmeal soaking products in your bath to help control the itching. Avoid scented soaps and use ones that have moisturizer in them.
  • Use a soft towel to dry your skin. Gently pat it dry to get the water off. Then put on some moisturizing ointment or cream to keep your skin from getting too dry. You can use the moisturizer several times a day.
  • Drink water, which adds moisture to your skin.
  • Wear loose clothing to help your skin feel better. Wear cotton or other soft, natural fibers. Wool and some synthetic cloth can make you feel itchy all over.
  • Talk to your doctor about what seems to be causing your flare-ups and try to avoid your triggers.
  • Chill out! You may find that your eczema gets worse when you're stressed. Find ways to deal with things that bother you, such as talking things out with your parents, a teacher, or a good friend.
Medically reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: May 2023