Understanding Eczema: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments


Photo: @naraaziza

Eczema or atopic dermatitis is a common inflammatory skin condition affecting over 31 million in the United States alone. Although it is projected that nearly half of infants diagnosed with eczema outgrow this condition or experience significant improvement as they grow older, a handful still experience severe symptoms. This article discusses the causes, symptoms, and possible treatments for eczema. 

What is Eczema?

Eczema is a skin condition that weakens the skin's barrier function, causing it to become dry, bumpy, and itchy. It is a type of dermatitis, a skin inflammation that affects the skin's ability to retain moisture and safeguard your body against external elements. Most eczema flare-ups often present themselves with itchiness and a rash-like appearance, especially when you come into contact with a trigger in your environment. 

Is Eczema Contagious?

Eczema is not contagious; thus, you cannot “catch it” from someone with the skin condition. Unlike many skin diseases, the actual cause of eczema is unknown to researchers, but it is certain eczema flare-ups are due to external triggers. Since eczema is non-contagious, it cannot spread from one person to another even if you touch an uninfected person. Hence the answer to the popular question, “Is eczema contagious?”

In rare cases, eczema can develop into a serious infection if the skin damage gets infected with bacteria, viruses, and fungi. These secondary infections can be contagious if left untreated for a while. For instance, people with eczema are prone to severe viral and bacterial infections like eczema vaccinatum and Staphylococcus infections, all of which are highly contagious. 

What Causes Eczema?

Researchers have yet to find an actual cause of eczema, however, what is known is that eczema flare-ups are caused by environmental or external stressors. However, the following are some popular causes of eczema:

  1. Immune System: Atopic dermatitis is the most common eczema type that results from an overactive immune system that causes dry and itchy skin. Eczema reactions can occur anywhere in the body, but eczema on the hands, back, and chest are most frequent.
  2. Genetics: There are multiple reported cases of eczema running in a family. Hence, if you have a direct family member with atopic dermatitis and other kinds of eczema, you are most likely to experience it. It is believed that the absence of a protein called “filaggrin” that helps maintain the skin moisture can lead to itchier and drier skin and this protein absence can be passed down genetically from one generation to another. 
  3. Environment: Environmental triggers are one of the most common causes of eczema. Common environmental eczema triggers include dust mites, soap, detergents, certain wool fabrics, and metals. These triggers also include long exposure to dry air or heat, candle fragrances, chemicals in vaccines, and Isothiazolinone found in numerous personal care products.
  4. Stress: Physical and emotional stress can also trigger eczema flare-ups. However, researchers have yet to find out why. According to a Pfizer reports, eczema flare-ups worsen when the individual is feeling stressed or depressed. 

Do Allergies Cause Eczema?

Many people often equate allergic reactions to eczema symptoms, so “Do allergies cause eczema?” Eczema is also associated with numerous food and environmental allergies and people with genetic eczema are often at a high risk of experiencing allergic-related eczema flare-ups. 

This is yet another reason why eczema rash is often associated with seasonal allergies and linked to symptoms like asthma and other allergic symptoms. It's important to note that not all eczema flare-ups are due to allergies.

Eczema Signs and Symptoms

Eczema can appear in different ways, but they tend to possess similar characteristics. The following are symptoms of eczema and where they show up on your skin:

  • Swelling
  • Small bumps on your skin
  • Skin rash
  • Dry skin
  • Folds near certain parts of the skin
  • Thick, leathery patches on the skin

You can experience eczema flare-ups in the following parts of your body;

  • Hand
  • Neck
  • Elbows
  • Feet
  • Face (Cheeks)
  • Knee
  • Lips
  • Ears
  • Armpit
  • Vulva 

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Eczema and Rash?

“Is eczema an allergy?” Most people often misdiagnose rash and eczema flare-ups for one another, while they are entirely different. This misindetification is more common with people with darker skin as eczema rash often comes in brown or purple tones, while it looks pinkish or red in lighter skin tones. The following are some ways to discern between eczema vs allergic rash:

  • Effect: One simple way to determine whether you have a simple rash or an eczema flare-up is to know what caused the reaction. If the rash appears after you have eaten a certain food with an allergen or if you've engaged in an activity such as hiking through a poison ivy bush, you can then differentiate whether it's a plain rash or an allergic-related eczema rash.
  • Location of the rash: The location of the rash is another indicator that can also help you differentiate between allergies and eczema. Eczema generally occurs on the back of the knees and inside of the elbow. It can sometimes appear on the neck, thus it's important to note how fast it is spreading, the pattern, and the unaffected parts as the rash often appears on the parts exposed to the external irritants.
  • Condition of the rash: You should determine how the rash feels. For instance, eczema and rash present different results during itching; eczema can also present with blisters and bumps while rash can only be painful. The condition of your rash during and after itching is a guaranteed way to differentiate between allergic reaction vs eczema.

What is the Best Treatment for Eczema?

There are different treatment options for eczema, however, this depends on the severity of the conditions and the age of the person suffering. The best eczema treatment plan will often consist of a combination of a skincare routine, over-the-counter medications, and other natural treatments. The following are some of the best treatment for eczema to help with eczema flare-ups;

  • Medical-grade topical ointments e.g. topical corticosteroids 
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications 
  • Injectable medications 
  • Bleach baths
  • Phototherapy and Cryotherapy 
  • Honey
  • Certain cosmetics moisturizing cream e.g. Dermaclara's Hyaluronic acid moisturizer 
  • Acupuncture 

How to Prevent Eczema Flare-ups

To prevent eczema flare-ups, an individual must understand her triggers to avoid them. The following are ways to prevent eczema flare-ups:

  • Know your eczema triggers so that you can avoid them
  • Use your prescribed over-the-counter creams medication properly
  • Incorporate a daily bathing and moisturizing routine
  • Cut foods that trigger your eczema symptoms 

Leave a comment