Eczema is a condition wherein patches of skin become inflamed, itchy, cracked, and rough. Some types can also cause blisters.
Different types and stages of eczema affect over 10% of the population.
Many people use the word eczema when referring to atopic dermatitis, which is the most common type. The term atopic refers to a collection of conditions that involve the immune system, including atopic dermatitis, asthma, and hay fever. The word dermatitis refers to inflammation of the skin.
Certain foods, such as nuts and dairy, can trigger symptoms. Environmental triggers include smoke, pollen, soaps, and fragrances. Eczema is not contagious.
Some people outgrow the condition, whereas others will continue to have it throughout adulthood.
Symptoms of Eczema
The symptoms of atopic dermatitis can vary depending on the age of the person who has it.
Atopic dermatitis is common in infants, with dry and scaly patches appearing on the skin. These patches are often intensely itchy. Continuous rubbing and scratching can lead to skin infections.
In most cases, however, eczema is mild. The most common symptoms of atopic dermatitis include:
- dry, scaly skin
- skin flushing
- open, crusted, or weeping sores
Some of the symptoms of eczema are different in people with darker skin. People with severe eczema will need more intensive treatment to relieve their symptoms.
Most people with the condition develop it before the age of 5 years. However, an estimated 60% of children will no longer show symptoms by adolescence.
People with the condition will often experience periods of time when their symptoms worsen, followed by periods of time when their symptoms will improve or clear up.
The symptoms in children and adults may be different. The following sections will outline some of these differences in more detail.
Symptoms of Eczema in infants
The following atopic dermatitis symptoms are common in infants under the age of 2:
- rashes on the scalp and cheeks
- rashes that bubble up before leaking fluid
- rashes that can cause extreme itchiness, which may interfere with sleeping
Symptoms of Eczema in children
The following atopic dermatitis symptoms are common in children age 2 and above:
- rashes that appear behind the creases of elbows or knees
- rashes that appear on the neck, wrists, ankles, and the crease between the buttocks and legs
- bumpy rashes
- rashes that can become lighter or darker
- skin thickening, also known as lichenification, which can then develop into a permanent itch
Symptoms of Eczema in adults
The following atopic dermatitis symptoms are common in adults:
- rashes that are more scaly than those occurring in children
- rashes that commonly appear in the creases of the elbows or knees or the nape of the neck
- rashes that cover much of the body
- very dry skin on the affected areas
- rashes that are permanently itchy
- skin infections
Adults who developed atopic dermatitis as a child but no longer experience the condition may still have dry or easily irritated skin, hand eczema, and eye problems.
The appearance of skin affected by atopic dermatitis will depend on how much a person scratches and whether or not the skin is infected. Scratching and rubbing can further irritate the skin, increase inflammation, and make the itching worse.
Causes of Eczema
The specific cause of eczema remains unknown, but many health professionals believe that it develops due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Children are more likely to develop eczema if a parent has it or another atopic condition. If both parents have an atopic condition, the risk is even higher.
Some environmental factors can bring out the symptoms of eczema. These factors include:
Irritants: These include soaps, detergents, shampoos, disinfectants, juices from fresh fruits, meats, and vegetables.
Allergens: Dust mites, pets, pollens, and mold can all lead to eczema. This is known as allergic eczema.
Microbes: These include bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, viruses, and certain fungi.
Hot and cold temperatures: Very hot and very cold weather, high and low humidity, and perspiration from exercise can bring out eczema.
Foods: Dairy products, eggs, nuts and seeds, soy products, and wheat can cause eczema flares.
Stress: This is not a direct cause of eczema, but it can make the symptoms worse.
Hormones: Females may experience increased eczema symptoms when their hormone levels are changing, such as during pregnancy and at certain points in the menstrual cycle.
Photo credit: James Hilman, MD