What is Eczema?
Eczema is a common skin condition that causes itchy, dry and cracked skin. There are two main forms of eczema - atopic and contact - and the condition is also often referred to as dermatitis. (The two words are used interchangeably and atopic dermatitis - or atopic eczema - is the most common type).
Frustratingly, eczema is a condition that causes the skin to become itchy and there is currently no cure. It can affect small patches of skin, for example on the face and scalp, or it can affect the skin all over the body. However, many people with atopic dermatitis often find ways to manage their symptoms.
Having eczema can cause upset and frustration because it can be very uncomfortable and cause inflamed, angry skin. This complex skin condition is becoming more prevalent, with cases having risen quite dramatically over the last decade. Approximately 11.5% of the population will suffer from eczema at some point in their lives.
So, why does eczema occur in some people and what causes eczema to flare up?
Here we discuss what eczema looks like, how to know if you have the condition, what the different eczema types are, how to identify the symptoms, what causes it and the best eczema care for your skin.
What Are the Symptoms of Atopic Eczema?
The symptoms of atopic dermatitis include inflamed, itchy and dry skin. Although they have different causes, that we'll go onto later on, contact dermatitis, the second most common form of eczema, also causes the same symptoms.
Eczema can also cause extremely itchy patches of skin which can be dry and scaly or blistered, oozy and crusty. Atopic dermatitis in adults tends to occur more in those with dry, sensitive skin.
It’s often found around the knees, elbows, hands, neck and ears. The symptoms can become worse if the skin becomes itchy, making it hard to resist scratching. Most people with eczema often develop the condition before their first birthday and those who do, are more likely to have eczema as an adult.
Are Eczema Symptoms Acute Or Chronic?
Eczema can be acute or chronic. Acute eczema develops quickly, forming red patches of skin irritation and rashes that can become blistered, oozy and swollen.
Chronic eczema develops slowly over time and is often a long term condition. It sometimes causes the affected areas of skin to become darker and thicker than the rest of the skin and the skin affected by eczema symptoms and flare-ups can become intensely itchy.
Sometimes, it’s possible to experience both acute and chronic eczema and this in-between form is known as subacute eczema.
Who Is At Risk Of Getting Atopic Dermatitis?
Eczema often develops in childhood, before the age of around a year old, but it's still possible for anyone of any age to develop it. The face and scalp in children can be common areas of skin affected by atopic eczema, and it can lead to red skin in the creases of the body too, such as the insides of the elbows and the backs of the knees.
Those that have a family history of eczema are more likely to be diagnosed with atopic eczema, and having asthma or hay fever can also mean that you have a higher risk of also developing atopic dermatitis.
What Are The Different Types Of Eczema?
The two most common types of eczema are atopic eczema and contact eczema The most common type is atopic dermatitis). But there are also many other types of eczema. These include seborrheic dermatitis, follicular eczema, varicose eczema and pompholyx, also referred to as dyshidrotic eczema or hand eczema.
Here’s a little more information on the two main types of eczema and how the symptoms may affect you.
Atopic Dermatitis / Eczema
Atopic eczema is a skin condition that causes dry patches, usually in skin folds such as behind the ears, on the backs of the knees and on the inner side of the elbows.
Symptoms include dry, red, itchy and scaly patches of skin. It usually runs in families, but not always and often goes hand in hand with also having asthma and hay fever. Moderate to severe eczema will cause the most irritating symptoms.
The exact cause of this type of itchy skin is unknown, but it's thought atopic eczema may be linked to an overactive immune system. In fact "atopic" means having a sensitivity to certain allergens such as in our food or environment that cause an internal allergic reaction. This type of eczema often has a significant link to dry skin that's unable to retain moisture.
Contact Dermatitis / Eczema
Contact eczema usually occurs on the hands, feet and face. Symptoms include red, itchy, dry skin, blisters and cracks.
There are two types of contact eczema – irritant and allergic. Irritant contact eczema or dermatitis is triggered by an irritant such as soap touching the skin.
Allergic contact eczema or dermatitis is triggered by an internal allergic response to something such as nickel plated jewellery touching the skin.
What Are the Causes and Risk Factors for Eczema?
There is no one specific cause of eczema - instead there are many causes. It may develop as a result of stress, genetics, food and chemical sensitivities, allergies, a lowered immune system, reactions to household products or environmental factors. Many people develop eczema as a young child, but it is possible to develop eczema in your 30s, 40s or beyond.
As everyone has their own unique trigger for eczema, you may need to undertake a process to find out what your trigger is. Once you’ve found your trigger, you will need to remove it from your life as much as possible to help keep your eczema flare ups at bay.
A doctor may be able to diagnose atopic eczema by looking at your skin during an active flare-up, or they may be able to run some tests before coming up with a treatment plan to help you manage your symptoms.
However, to truly heal eczema you have to treat the root cause and not just the trigger. To find out more on what causes eczema visit our what causes eczema article.
Does Eczema Look Like Ringworm or a Skin Infection?
Ringworm is a skin condition caused by a fungus that causes symptoms similar to a type of eczema called nummular eczema. Both can cause red, circular rashes on the skin, but they are different skin conditions.
As well as red rings on the skin, nummular eczema also causes larger rashes all over the body that can be red, pink, brown or yellow. The skin becomes itchy and can feel like it’s burning. Ringworm only causes a few spots of red rings rather than spreading all over the body. It doesn’t necessarily cause itching.
The two are often confused but eczema doesn't seem to be caused by a fungus whereas ringworm is.
What's the Difference Between Eczema and Psoriasis?
As we’ve discussed here, eczema causes red, itching, sometimes broken, inflamed skin. It’s caused by allergens, genetics and / or hormones.
Conversely, psoriasis causes silvery, white, scaly skin and is caused by the body producing too many skin cells. It can also result in red, itchy, irritated skin and that’s why the two conditions are sometimes confused. If you’re in doubt as to whether you have psoriasis or eczema, it’s important to speak to your GP or specialist skin doctor.
Where Do Eczema Flare-Ups Develop?
Eczema can develop anywhere on the body or the face. It’s more common on the hands, feet, backs of the knees, inside the elbows and behind the ears, but it can also develop elsewhere on the face, arms and legs.
You can also get eczema on your eyelids and it’s common for babies to develop eczema on their scalps, where it’s called cradle cap. Some women also experience eczema on their vulva.
Is Eczema Contagious?
If you know someone with eczema, it’s quite normal to wonder if you can catch eczema. If you have eczema, you probably also worry if eczema is contagious, especially as severe eczema often results in weeping, oozing skin.
Sometimes, having eczema can be extremely upsetting and stressful. But it’s important to remember that even if people think eczema is contagious, it isn’t. You cannot pass eczema onto other people even if you’re having a really bad flare up of your symptoms.
If your eczema becomes infected and is oozing and weeping, it is possible to pass this infection on to someone with broken skin or wounds, but you won’t be passing on your eczema.
If you think you may have caught eczema from someone, it’s almost certainly not eczema, and will be another skin condition.
Can Eczema Spread?
Eczema cannot spread from person to person, but someone with eczema can develop eczema patches anywhere on their body.
It’s difficult, but resisting the urge to scratch your skin can help prevent your eczema patches from spreading. Touching non-infected eczema and then touching another area of your body will not cause eczema to spread.
How Long Do the Symptoms of Eczema Last?
Some people develop eczema as a baby and have it for the rest of their lives. It may come and go, but may never totally disappear. However, it’s possible to develop eczema as an adult, and eczema can get worse with age. But it’s also possible to ‘grow out’ of eczema.
We’re all individuals and if we have eczema prone skin, we all have different experiences of eczema.
How long your eczema flare ups last will depend on the trigger, your skin type, your skincare regime and how much you avoid scratching your skin. Severe eczema can leave scars, especially if you’ve scratched your skin a lot. Continued scratching can lead to ‘lichenification’ of the skin. This means that eczema can lead to skin that becomes extremely dry, thick and leathery.
How Are Eczema and Asthma Related?
Eczema and asthma often go hand in hand. If you have eczema, especially as a child, you’re more likely to develop asthma.
Doctors call this the ‘atopic march’. Researchers think it’s due to substances released by inflamed eczematous skin that can travel around the body and trigger asthma when air borne allergens are present. Research continues on the link between eczema and asthma, and how treating eczema effectively can help to stop the development of asthma.
Is There a Cure for Eczema?
There are many different treatments for eczema that will help you manage symptoms of the condition, depending on your symptoms and triggers. If you’re looking for skincare to help support and nourish your eczema prone skin, our range of alkalising cleansers and moisturisers have been specially developed for those with problem skin.
But essentially, sadly, it has no cure and treating atopic eczema symptoms, rather than the cause, is the best way to manage it.
How Can I Reduce My Eczema Flare-Ups?
To help reduce the number of eczema flare ups you experience, there are things you can do to help manage your condition:
- Stick to a skincare regime that supports your skin. The Sönd range of alkalising skincare is ideal as it nourishes and hydrates the skin deep within the lower layers where it’s needed the most.
- Use a gentle alkaline soap or shower gel to wash your body and use a soft, clean towel to pat yourself dry (don’t rub at your skin).
- Use Sönd ozonated olive oil or a gentle body moisturiser after showering or bathing immediately after patting your skin dry and reapply every few hours if necessary.
- A lukewarm shower is best for dry, stressed and irritated skin, but if you do have a bath, don’t have the water too hot and add alkaline salts to the water to soothe the skin.
- Protect your skin from cold, windy or wet weather by wearing a hat, scarf pulled up to cover your lower face and gloves.
- As much as possible, avoid scratching your skin. If you scratch your skin in your sleep, wear cotton gloves to bed.
- Also avoid any known or suspected triggers and allergens that may be triggering symptoms as much as possible.
- If you need to submerge your hands in water, such as for work or for household chores, make sure you always wear gloves.
- Hypoallergenic gloves are best, with a cotton pair worn underneath.
- Drink 2-3 litres of water a day - make sure it’s at room temperature, rather than cold from the tap or fridge - to keep your skin and whole body hydrated.
- Take steps to avoid getting too hot and sweaty - if you can, avoid being in direct sunlight between the hours of 11am and 3pm when the sun is at its strongest.
- If you exercise, choose gentle versions of the exercise you enjoy, such as jogging and yoga (not in a hot room).
- Choose to exercise outside early in the morning or in the evening when it’s not as hot, or in a cool room.
- Avoid sudden changes in temperature and humidity such as going into a steam room or air conditioned room as much as possible.
- Wear loose fitting clothing, made of natural, breathable materials such as cotton, linen and hemp, when it’s hot.
- Avoid wool as this can be irritating and wash new clothes before wearing them to wash away irritants and excess dyes.
- Learn stress reduction techniques to avoid stress as a trigger, such as mindfulness, yoga and hobbies you enjoy.
What Foods Should I Eat or Avoid to Reduce My Risk of Eczema?
One of the best pieces of advice we can give to help manage your eczema flare up is to follow the alkaline lifestyle. This means reducing animal protein in the form of meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products to around 20% of your diet, or at least completely eliminating all dairy products.
The true connection between eczema flare ups and the food we eat still isn’t fully understood. But if you suspect you have a food allergy or intolerance or you know a specific food makes your symptoms worse, then it’s important to have it investigated.
Common food allergies that can make eczema flare up include dairy, eggs, peanuts, gluten and alcohol. Keeping a food and skin diary can help you work out any connections or triggers.
What Can I Expect if I've Been Diagnosed with Eczema?
Around 50% of children diagnosed with eczema will either experience a significant improvement in their symptoms by the time they reach puberty, or will completely outgrow the condition.
If you develop eczema as an adult, or your childhood eczema hasn’t cleared up, following our tips above will help you to manage your skin and reduce flare ups.
This article is not meant to treat or diagnose. Please visit your doctor for advice about any health concerns you may have.