What is Eczema?

Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Eczema is a common skin condition affecting 10-30% of children and 2-10% of adults in the UK. There are many types of eczema but the most common is atopic eczema which causes the skin to become itchy, dry, cracked, and sore. Although the condition cannot be cured, there are treatments available to help relieve the symptoms as well as measures you can take to prevent flare ups from occurring.

What is Eczema?

Eczema is a common skin condition that causes dry, itchy, and sore patches of skin. It is more common in children but some people can get eczema for the first time in adulthood. Although the exact cause of eczema is unknown, it often occurs in people who already have allergies or allergic conditions, such as hay fever or asthma.

What is the difference between eczema and psoriasis?

Eczema and psoriasis are both common skin conditions which can cause similar symptoms. Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease - a condition caused by your immune system attacking your body - whereas eczema is thought to result from a combination of genetic, immunological and environmental factors.

Eczema is more common in babies and children while psoriasis usually starts between the ages of 20 and 30 or aged 50-60. Another key difference between these 2 skin conditions is the severity of itching. Eczema tends to be intense and can disrupt sleep whereas with psoriasis it can be mild or even absent.

How common is eczema?

Eczema is common affecting approximately 10-30% of children and 10% of adults in the UK.

What Are the Symptoms of Eczema?

The common symptoms of eczema are:

  • dry skin
  • itchy skin
  • inflamed, red patches of skin
  • cracked and sore skin

Some people with eczema only experience small patches of dry skin, but others can have large patches of inflamed skin all over their body. It can affect any body part and these symptoms are common for all types of eczema.

There are many types which can also cause other symptoms and may affect specific body parts. Often the first signs of eczema are redness and itchiness.

What does eczema look like?

Eczema causes the skin to look inflamed and irritated. This inflammation can cause skin to look like a red or dark brown rash on lighter skin, or a darker brown, purple, or grey rash on darker skin. Eczema can also be more difficult to see on darker skin.

It can also cause patches of dry skin, which can become cracked and sore. This can cause skin to appear dry or leathery. Eczema can affect the skin anywhere on the body, but is most common on hands, the inside of your elbows and behind your knees.

Is eczema painful?

Eczema is generally not painful, and it usually feels itchy. In some cases where the skin cracks, it can cause the affected skin to feel sore or cause a burning or stinging sensation.

Does eczema only affect your scalp?

No, eczema can affect skin on any part of your body, not just the scalp. However, eczema on the scalp is more common in babies or children than in adults.

How long does an eczema flare up last?

People with eczema tend to have flare-ups which can last several weeks. Between flare ups, the symptoms of eczema may subside.

What types of eczema are there?

Eczema is the name given for a group of skin conditions that result in dry and irritated skin. There are several types, including:

  • Atopic dermatitis - the most common form that causes, dry, itchy, cracked skin
  • Contact dermatitis - caused by the body coming into contact with a specific substance which is an irritant or allergen, like soaps or detergents
  • Dyshidrotic eczema - also known as pompholyx, this condition causes small blisters to develop on the hands, fingers, and sometimes the soles of the feet
  • Nummular eczema - also called discoid eczema, it causes circular patches of itchy, cracked, swollen skin which left untreated can last weeks, months, or years
  • Seborrheic dermatitis - eczema which affect the sides of the nose, eyebrows, ears, or scalp, most commonly known as dandruff
  • Stasis dermatitis - also known as varicose eczema or venous eczema, this type of eczema occurs when there is poor circulation in the lower legs

Eczema complications

  • Skin infections - skin affected by eczema that has become dry and cracked, or has been opened by frequent scratching, is at a higher risk of infection by viruses or bacteria. This includes infections like herpes
  • Sleeping problems - eczema can interfere with sleep, especially when it is itchy at night. Over a long time, this can impact your quality of sleep and the amount of sleep you get.
  • Neurodermatitis - when you scratch itchy skin, it can cause it to become even itchier. The skin can also become thick, leathery, and discoloured.

When should I talk to a doctor about my eczema?

You should speak to a doctor if you suspect you may have eczema. They will be able to diagnose the condition by looking at your symptoms and asking you questions, like:

  • When did your symptoms start?
  • Where does the rash appear and is it itchy?
  • Is there a family history of atopic eczema?
  • Do you have other allergies such as asthma or hay fever?
  • Do the symptoms come and go?
  • What is your diet and lifestyle like?

If you think you have a skin infection or your eczema has become infected you should speak to a doctor urgently for advice. They may need to prescribe antibiotics or different treatments to treat the infection or your symptoms.

The signs of an infection include:

  • your eczema has got worse
  • there is fluid oozing from your skin
  • your skin is swollen and sore
  • there are yellow spots or a yellow crust on the surface of the eczema
  • you feel generally unwell, particularly hot and shivery (fever)

What Causes Eczema?

Atopic eczema is common in children and is usually diagnosed before their 1st birthday. The cause of your eczema may depend on what type you have. If you have contact dermatitis, it may be caused by an allergy to a soap or shampoo you have been using.

If you have atopic eczema or dermatitis, there is likely to be a combination of causes including genetics, changes in your immune system and environmental factors such as exposure to allergens.

What increases your risk of eczema?

Although the cause of atopic eczema is unknown, there are certain factors which increase the risk of developing the condition. They include:

  • Family history of eczema
  • Other allergies such as asthma
  • Food allergies

Family history

You are more likely to develop eczema if it runs in your family. Research shows that there is a:

  • 60% chance of a child developing eczema if 1 parent has the condition
  • 80% chance if both parents have eczema

Atopic eczema and asthma

Research shows there is a strong link between asthma and atopic eczema. It has been shown that people who have early onset eczema and a family history are at a higher risk of developing asthma.

Food allergies

Food allergies do not cause eczema but having a food allergy can cause eczema flare ups or can cause the skin condition to worsen over time. Food allergies are more common in children than in adults.

What causes eczema to flare up?

Flare ups happen when the skin is exposed to specific triggers, such as:

  • soap
  • extreme temperature, weather, or climate
  • detergents
  • dry skin
  • stress
  • certain foods
  • skin infections
  • hormonal changes

How is Eczema Diagnosed?

A doctor will be able to diagnose eczema just by looking at your skin and taking a history about the eczema or rash you have. There is usually no need for blood or skin tests but for people whose symptoms are different, test may be performed to rule out other skin conditions. You can get eczema diagnosed online with Superdrug Online Doctor's skin condition diagnosis service. Simply upload some images of your skin, and a doctor can help identify and diagnose it.

How do I know if I have eczema?

You should avoid self-diagnosing eczema and speak to a doctor if you suspect you may have the condition. They will be able to quickly diagnose eczema and offer appropriate treatment to relieve your symptoms.

How is Eczema Treated?

Yes, there are treatments available for eczema to help relieve the symptoms. As children get older, many find that their symptoms naturally get better or clear up completely.

Can eczema be cured?

There is currently no cure for eczema, so there is no way to get rid of eczema permanently but treatments can help to control the symptoms.

How to treat eczema

As well as avoiding triggers, there are two main types of treatment available for eczema:

  • emollients
  • topical corticosteroids


Aveeno lotion and Cetraben cream are both examples of emollients. These are moisturising treatments that are used to help soothe and hydrate skin. They are used to treat skin conditions including eczema, and help to keep skin hydrated and moisturised by forming a protective film over it. They are flammable so it’s important to stay away from fire and cigarettes if you’ve applied emollients.

Lotions are better for damaged areas of skin, especially those that are weeping. Aveeno lotion is thin, spreads easily and contains soothing ingredients like oatmeal which has been used for centuries to keep skin moisturised.

Cetraben cream has been specially formulated for dry, itchy, eczema prone skin. It works by:

  • locking in moisture
  • repairing a damaged skin barrier
  • protects the skin from irritants and dryness

Topical corticosteroids

Topical corticosteroids are creams, lotions, or gels that have anti-inflammatory properties and are used to treat a range of skin conditions, including eczema. Unlike emollients, which should be used regularly, topical corticosteroids should be used sparingly for a short period of time and with the instruction of a healthcare professional or according to the manufacturer’s guidelines. That’s because if corticosteroids are used too much they can cause side effects.

Hydrocortisone cream may help to relieve the inflammation and itching experienced during an eczema flare up. It should only be used 1-2 times a day and for a maximum of a week before you’d need to contact your doctor again.

Eumovate cream is another type of topical corticosteroid. It contains the active ingredient clobetasone butyrate. Eumovate 0.05% cream can be applied up to 2 times a day for a maximum of 4 weeks. The cream is used to relieve the symptoms of eczema, reducing swelling and irritation.

Over the counter eczema treatments

There are treatments available over the counter for eczema symptoms. These are remedies that do not need a prescription. They include:

  • antihistamines - to help with itching and inflammation if you have allergies
  • pain relief - for the relief of pain, burning and inflammation caused by flare ups
  • emollients- to help keep your skin moist
  • topical hydrocortisone - for temporary relief of itchy rashes
  • medicated shampoos and soaps - to help with symptoms such as dandruff

How to treat scalp eczema

Scalp eczema or seborrheic dermatitis may be treated with medicated shampoos that contain active ingredients, such as:

  • coal tar
  • selenium sulphide
  • ketoconazole
  • salicylic acid
  • zinc pyrithione

These are anti-dandruff shampoos and a pharmacist can tell you how to use them. You should use the shampoo for a month to see if your dandruff improves.

How to treat eczema on hands

The main treatments for eczema on the hands are:

  • emollients
  • corticosteroid cream

If the itchiness is keeping you awake at night or is intense, you may be able to take an antihistamine to help relieve the symptoms. You should check with your pharmacist or doctor which antihistamine would be most suitable for you to take.

How to treat eczema on the eyelid

The usual treatment for eczema around the eyes is emollients and mild corticosteroids. You may be prescribed topical calcineurin inhibitors (TCIs) which is lotion used to treat eyelid eczema. Because it contains no steroids, there is no risk that it will thin the skin.

How to treat eczema on your face

The most common treatments for eczema on the face are emollients and mild corticosteroids. These will help to relieve inflammation and itching but you can try self-care techniques, too. These include:

  • reducing scratching
  • avoiding triggers

How to treat eczema on feet

Treating eczema on your feet or pompholyx is similar to treating atopic eczema and includes the use of:

  • topical corticosteroids
  • emollients

How to Prevent Eczema

There are certain steps you can take to help prevent eczema flare ups.

Identify your eczema triggers

There are many factors which can contribute to an eczema flare up, such as certain temperatures, stress, and foods. Identifying what may be causing your eczema flare ups means you can avoid these triggers where possible and prevent future flare ups.


Dry skin is a common trigger for eczema, so keeping your skin moisturised can help to prevent flare ups. You should regularly moisturise your skin, even if there are no signs of dryness.

Try using hypoallergenic skin products which are perfume and additive free, because these added ingredients can irritate the skin. Use your emollient as recommended by your doctor to try to prevent flare ups.

Keep clothing loose

Tight fitting clothing as well as nylon and synthetic fabrics can irritate your skin. Wear clothes that are made of soft fabrics, like cotton and choose clothes that allow your skin to breathe.

Consider your diet

Keep a food diary to see if there are any specific foods which may be causing your eczema flare ups. If you think there are, you should contact your doctor and:

  • eat brightly coloured fruit and vegetables every day
  • choose healthy carbohydrates like whole grains
  • limit sugar intake

Stay dust free

Dust, pet dander, and pollen can be major eczema triggers. Try to keep your work and home environment free of these allergens and irritants with frequent cleaning.

Stay hydrated

Drinking plenty of water throughout the day is an easy way to prevent eczema flare ups. Not only will it help to stop


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