If you’ve ever had to deal with dry winter skin, you may think you know what eczema feels like. But anyone living with the chronic condition will tell you it’s much more than that. Rashes can rear their heads at any time of year, and eczema causes include irritants as mundane as food, clothes, and the weather. Symptoms range from mildly annoying to distracting enough to keep people from getting sleep and focusing on their work. Here are some more facts about eczema causes, symptoms, and treatments.
1. Eczema isn't just one condition.
Rather than describing one specific skin condition, eczema is used as a catch-all term for a group of related conditions. When people mention eczema, they’re often referring to atopic dermatitis: This is a chronic inflammatory condition characterized by dry, itchy red patches that flare up across the body when the immune system overreacts to a trigger. There’s also contact dermatitis, which is when rashes are triggered by irritants coming in contact with the skin; nummular eczema, when rashes are coin-shaped; and stasis dermatitis, when fluid “weeps” out of weakened blood vessels in the skin. Eczema shouldn't be confused with psoriasis: While both are conditions that lead to dry, itchy skin, the latter is an autoimmune condition while the former is primarily caused by allergic reactions.
2. Eczema is sometimes limited to the hands.
Eczema doesn’t have to affect the entire body. Hand eczema comes with many of the same symptoms of regular dermatitis—including chapped skin, painful cracks, red patches, and itchy blisters—but is limited to the hands and forearms. Many people without eczema deal with dry hands, especially during the colder months, so it can be difficult to know when these symptoms are signs of a medical condition. If your itchy, irritated hands can’t be treated with moisturizer alone, ask a dermatologist if you may have hand eczema.
3. It's often genetic.
Your genetic background is a strong predictor of eczema. If both of your parents have it, there’s an 80 percent chance that you will develop it as well, according to the Eczema Association Australasia. A family history of asthma and hay fever is also linked to eczema.
4. Eczema can be debilitating.
A list of symptoms doesn’t begin to capture what the experience of living with eczema is like. The itching and discomfort that comes with it can be so intense that it keeps people up at night, leaving them exhausted and unable to function during the day. Symptoms may be so acute that they’re all the person thinks about, which can hinder their relationships and work life. Others may feel discouraged to go out in public because they’re self-conscious of how their skin looks.
5. It's not contagious.
No matter how much contact you have with someone with eczema, there’s no chance of you catching their skin condition. Despite this, many people will see someone scratching their eczema rashes and assume what they have is just as contagious as poison ivy or chicken pox. And because eczema often runs in families, it sometimes carries the illusion of “spreading” between people who live together.
6. Eczema can be triggered by your environment ...
There are a number of environmental factors that can trigger eczema symptoms. Changes in climate—either to cold, dry conditions or hot, humid ones—may be enough to provoke a flare-up. For many people, chemical irritants are the sources of their rashes. Cigarette smoke, perfumes, household cleaners, shampoos, and fabrics like wool and polyester have all been linked to eczema reactions. That doesn't mean that everyone with eczema needs to avoid these things: The condition affects everyone differently, and an irritant that causes one person’s flare-ups may have zero effect on someone else.
7. ... and stress level.
Even if someone with eczema takes great pains to avoid their environmental triggers, a hard day may be all it takes to make their skin break out. Many people with eczema report exacerbated symptoms when they're feeling stressed. According to the National Eczema Association, eczema sufferers are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, creating a vicious cycle for patients who count stress as a trigger.
8. It's connected to allergies.
Eczema is often accompanied by an allergic condition, whether it’s asthma, hay fever, or allergies to food. Up to 80 percent of children with atopic dermatitis go on to develop asthma or hay fever. It’s unclear what the exact relationship between allergies and eczema is, but some medical experts believe that the weakened skin barrier associated with eczema makes it easier for allergens to enter the body, which can in turn impact the immune system over time. Allergens—like pollen, dust, pet dander, and mold— are also triggers for some people with eczema.
9. Scratching makes it worse.
When an eczema flare-up starts to itch, it can be impossible to think about anything else. But scratching a rash is the last thing people with this condition should do. Instead of relieving discomfort, scratching a dry patch of skin can irritate it even further. Sometimes eczema sufferers scratch their skin so much that it starts to bleed, opening the door for potential infections.
10. Eczema is more common in kids.
Eczema affects roughly 11 percent of U.S. children [PDF] and 7 percent of adults [PDF]. Most kids with eczema develop it within the first five years of life, with 65 percent percent of child eczema patients first showing symptoms as infants. Living with eczema can be taxing for both kids and parents—especially when kids can’t stop themselves from scratching their rashes—but fortunately, half of kids with the condition grow out of it by the time they reach their teen years.
11. It can't be cured—but it can be treated.
There’s no cure for eczema, but there are some treatments that can help keep aggressive symptoms under control. Above all, eczema patients should keep their skin clean and moisturized to prevent flare-ups. Doctors recommend taking regular showers with warm water (but not hot water, as that can dry skin even more), and applying moisturizer immediately after bathing. If regular moisturizer isn't enough to soothe skin, doctors may prescribe a topical ointment with steroids to reduce inflammation, and if that still isn't effective, systemic medications that fight inflammation throughout the whole body may help. Ultraviolet B therapy is another treatment option. A few times a week, patients stand in a UVB light box that mimics natural sunlight. This encourages vitamin D production and curbs skin's inflammatory response while calming itchiness at the same time.