Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a skin disease caused by increased sensitivity to the environment. It causes dry irritated skin. It often runs in families and may occur with hay fever, asthma, and nasal allergies. It cannot be caught. Eczema is very common, affecting 1% of adults and 5% to 10% of children in the United States. In most people, eczema goes away completely by adulthood.
This sensitivity causes inflammation (redness), itching, and scratching. Scratching, however, often makes itching worse and can cause breaks in the skin, increasing risks of infection.
Causes of eczema or things that make it worse include stress; very hot or cold air; foods including wheat, milk, eggs, and pod vegetables such as beans, peas, and lentils; certain types of cloth; perfumes; dust mites; and animal hair.
Eczema produces a rash that is red, swollen, itchy, dry, flaky, hard, thick, oozing, and crusty. The rash appears most commonly on the face, hands, and feet, inside the elbows, and behind the knees.
The health care provider can usually diagnose eczema without doing tests but may order general blood tests and skin testing when the diagnosis is unclear or when trying to determine the cause of the eczema.
Four main ways of treating eczema involve avoiding triggers that cause or worsen it; keeping skin moist with special lotions, soaps, and bath products; treating redness and swelling with anti-inflammatory medicines (corticosteroid creams and pills), tar, and light therapy; and helping stop itching with antihistamines, creams, and pills.
Simple, nonmedicated moisturizing cream may be used daily. Steroid creams are for severe itching.
Medicines taken by mouth (pills) to relieve itching include antihistamines, which calm nerve endings in skin. Corticosteroids given as pills can stop inflammation and itching and reduce redness, but they do have side effects (e.g., stomach ulcers, weight gain) when taken long term.
Covering the rash with bandages helps by keeping creams and lotions on the skin and protecting skin from being scratched.
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