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What is eczema?

Learn about eczema, the possible causes and available treatments.

Itchy, dry skin is a common symptom of eczema. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Itchy, dry skin is a common symptom of eczema.

Eczema, a condition that often accompanies hay fever and other allergies, causes itching and inflammation of the skin. Though it can affect anybody, eczema is most common in children and infants. The good news is that for many young eczema patients, the symptoms will subside as they grow up. For others, though, it is a lifelong condition.

There is some confusion about the term eczema. Eczema describes a group of skin conditions known as dermatitis, including atopic dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis, nummular eczema, irritant contact dermatitis, dishydrotic eczema and allergic contact dermatitis. However, when most people use the term eczema they are referring to the condition technically known as atopic dermatitis. On this page, you will learn more about eczema, including eczema symptoms, eczema causes, as well as treatments for this chronic skin condition.

Eczema Symptoms

The most common symptoms of eczema are rashes. While rashes, which may be purple or red in color, can appear anywhere on the body, they most often appear behind the knees and on the arms. In some cases blisters that weep clear fluid will form. Other symptoms include scaly, cracking skin, excessively dry skin and intense itching that may get worse at night.

Eczema Causes

Though eczema is a very common disease, it has no known cause. Some researchers have identified a potential genetic link. People who have relatives with hay fever or asthma are at higher risk for eczema. Others suggest the immune system plays a role in the disease.

Though eczema has no known cause, the factors that influence severity and frequency of eczema flare-ups are better understood. Most of the symptoms associated with eczema are exacerbated by exposure to allergens. Sand, dust, cigarette smoke, certain soaps and detergents, lotions and certain fabrics can all worsen eczema symptoms or cause a flare up. Stress has been proven to play a role in eczema, and eczema patients are urged to manage their stress. However, soaking in a hot bath should not be one of them. Long hot baths and showers can dry out the skin.

Eczema Treatment

Even though eczema is an allergy-related condition, allergy treatments, like allergy shots, are ineffective. Instead, the standard treatment for eczema aims to stop the inflammation and itchiness associated with the condition. Over-the-counter anti-itch creams are often recommended, but if they don't help, your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid cream. These topical creams reduce swelling and inflammation, but the long-term side effects of these drugs, which include skin discoloration and possible infection, make them unappealing for some eczema patients.

If over-the-counter or prescription creams fail to control the symptoms, the next step in eczema treatment are oral steroids such as prednisone. Though these drugs are highly effective in reducing inflammation, their side effects are extreme, preventing them from being a legitimate long-term option.

Another treatment strategy is modulating the immune system. Because some cases of eczema may result of an unnatural immune system response, immuno-modulating drugs can be effective in controlling eczema flare-ups. As with the other drug treatments, there are serious concerns about their long-term side effects.

For people who don't respond to traditional drug therapy or are unwilling to endure the side effects of those medications, there is light therapy. Light therapy involves exposing the skin to natural or artificial sunlight for extended periods of time. Of course, exposure to sunlight brings its own dangers, including an increased risk of skin cancer.

Ultimately, the best way to treat eczema may be to learn how your eczema behaves. Recognizing which allergens cause flare-ups can help you modify your lifestyle to keep your eczema under control. For more information about eczema, including treatment and support options, contact the National Eczema Association at 800-818-7546.

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