Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a chronic inflammation of the outer layers of the skin. This condition is not contagious.
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The exact cause of eczema is unknown. Factors that may contribute to eczema include:
- Allergies to certain fabrics, perfumes in soaps, dust mites (common), or foods
- Stress, especially if it leads to scratching
- Frequent washing of affected areas
- Use of rubber gloves in persons sensitive to latex
- Scratching or rubbing of skin
Factors that increase your chance of eczema:
- Age: 5 years old or younger—eczema becomes less common after the ages of 5-10
- Urban areas or places with low humidity
- Relatives who have eczema or allergic disorders
- Race: Black or Asian
The symptoms vary from person to person. Scratching and rubbing can cause or worsen some of the symptoms.
- Dry, itchy skin
- Cracks behind the ears or in other skin creases
- Rashes on the cheeks, arms, and legs
- Red, scaly skin
- Thick, leathery skin
- Small, raised bumps on the skin
- Crusting, oozing, or cracking of the skin
- Symptoms that worsen in the winter when inside air is dry due to central heating
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. You may be referred to specialist. A dermatologist focuses on skin disorders. An allergist focuses on allergies.
The main goals of eczema treatments are to:
- Heal the skin and keep it healthy
- Stop scratching or rubbing
- Avoid skin infection
- Prevent flare-ups
- Recognize and avoid triggers, if there are any
Treatment options may vary. Your doctor may recommend more than one depending on your condition. They include:
- Avoid hot or long baths or showers. Keep them less than 15 minutes.
- Use mild, unscented bar soap or nonsoap cleanser. Use it sparingly.
- Air-dry or gently pat dry after bathing. Apply gentle moisturizer right after.
- Treat skin infections right away.
- Prescription creams and ointments containing cortisone, tacrolimus, or pimecrolimus
Oral medications, such as prednisone
cyclosporine—For severe cases
- Antibiotics applied directly to the skin or taken by mouth—Only for treating infections
- Prescription or over-the-counter antihistamines to help prevent itching
- Treatment with ultraviolet (UV) light by a doctor
- Photopheresis—For severe cases
It is difficult to prevent eczema. This is most true when there is a strong family history.
You may be able to reduce your child's risk of eczema by:
- For bottlefed infants, using a certain kind of formula—Ask the doctor if your baby should have 100% whey protein formula
- Exposing your child to pets at an early age
- Taking probiotics while pregnant and after giving birth if you are breastfeeding
Your doctor may have more information regarding steps for reducing the risk of eczema.
If you already have eczema, there are several things you can do to try to control it:
- Follow guidelines to limit house dust mites in bedding.
- Avoid direct contact with wool to the skin.
- Talk to your doctor about any natural or herbal treatments. Some of these may make eczema worse.
- Apply a moisturizer to your skin often.
- Avoid scratching or rubbing.
- Follow your treatment plan. Improvement may take several weeks or even months after a new medicine is started.
- Maintain a cool, stable environment. Keep humidity levels the same.
- Recognize and limit emotional stress.
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Last reviewed September 2012 by Purvee S. Shah, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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