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Medically reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD

What Is Eczema?

Eczema (pronounced: EG-zeh-muh) is a condition where the skin becomes red, scaly, irritated, and itchy. There are many types of eczema, but atopic dermatitis (pronounced: ay-TOP-ik der-muh-TIE-tis) is one of the most common. To many people, the terms "eczema" and "atopic dermatitis" mean the same thing.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Eczema?

The symptoms of eczema:

  • are mainly dry, itchy skin
  • also include redness, scales, and fluid-filled bumps that become moist and then crust over
  • can vary quite a bit from person to person
  • can be on any part of the body. But in teens, the itchy patches usually happen where the elbow bends; on the backs of the knees; on the inner wrists and ankles; and on the face, neck, and upper chest.
  • tend to come and go. When they get worse, it is called a flare-up.

Some people who have eczema scratch their skin so much it becomes thick, darker, and almost leathery in texture (called lichenification).

What Causes Eczema?

Doctors don't know exactly what causes eczema, but they think it could be a difference in the way a person's immune system reacts to things. Skin allergies may be involved in some forms of eczema.

Who Gets Eczema?

Eczema is fairly common. Many people with eczema have family members with the condition. Experts think it passes from parents to kids through the genes. 

People with eczema also may have asthma and some types of allergies, such as hay fever. Eczema, asthma, and hay fever are known as "atopic" conditions. These affect people who are overly sensitive to allergens in the environment. For some, food allergies may bring these on or make them worse. For others, allergies to animal dander, dust, pollen or other things might be the triggers.

Eczema is not contagious.

How Is Eczema Diagnosed?

There is no specific test used to diagnose eczema. A doctor will look at the rash and ask about your symptoms and past health, as well as your family's health. If you or your family members have any atopic conditions, that's an important clue.

The doctor will want to rule out other conditions that can cause skin inflammation. The doctor might recommend that you see a dermatologist or an allergist.

How Is Eczema Treated?

If you're diagnosed with eczema, your doctor might:

  • prescribe medicines to put on the skin that soothe the redness and irritation, such as creams or ointments that contain corticosteroids (not the same as steroids used by some athletes)
  • recommend other medicines to take by mouth if the eczema is really bad or you get it a lot

If someone has severe eczema, ultraviolet light therapy can help clear up the condition. Newer medicines that change the way the skin's immune system reacts also may help.

How Can I Deal With Eczema?

There's no cure for eczema. But you can help prevent a flare-up:

  • Moisturize! A scent-free moisturizer will prevent your skin from becoming irritated and cracked. Moisturize every day, ideally twice or three times a day. The best time to apply moisturizer is after the skin has been soaked in a bath or shower, then patted dry gently. Ointments (such as petroleum jelly) and creams are best because they contain a lot of oil. Lotions have too much water to be as helpful.
  • Stay away from things that can irritate your skin. Besides your known triggers, some things you may want to avoid include household cleaners, drying soaps, detergents, and scented lotions. For facial eczema, wash gently with a nondrying facial cleanser or soap substitute, and use facial moisturizers, makeup, and sunscreens that say "non-comedogenic/oil-free" on the product label.
  • Use warm water. Too much exposure to hot water can dry out your skin, so take short warm — not hot — showers and baths and wear gloves if your hands will be in water for long periods of time. Gently and thoroughly pat your skin dry, using a soft towel.
  • Say yes to cotton. Clothes made of scratchy fabric like wool can irritate your skin. Soft cotton clothes are a better bet.
  • Don't scratch. It's hard to resist, but scratching can make eczema worse and make it harder for skin to heal. You might break the skin and let bacteria in, causing an infection.
  • Stay cool. Sudden changes in temperature, sweating, and becoming overheated may cause your eczema to kick in.
  • Take your meds. Follow your doctor's directions for all medicines.
  • Unwind. Stress can aggravate eczema, so try to relax.

What Else Should I Know?

If you live with eczema, tune in to what triggers it and how to manage it. For example, if you find that some types of makeup irritate your skin, ask a dermatologist to recommend brands that are less likely to do so.

Your self-esteem doesn't have to suffer because you have eczema, and neither does your social life! Getting involved in your school and extracurricular activities can be a great way to get your mind off the itch.

Don't forget to exercise. It's a great way to blow off stress — try walking, bike riding, swimming, or another sport that keeps your skin cool and dry while you work out.

Medically reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: May 2023