Eczema is a dry skin condition that causes your skin to become inflamed, with itching, redness and sometimes cracked and bleeding areas of skin.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2023

What is eczema?

Eczema is an inflammatory condition where your skin becomes very dry, itchy, and breaks out into red, flaky patches called flares.

There are different types of eczema – the most common is atopic dermatitis which tends to be more common in people whose immune system is overly sensitive to allergens. Atopic dermatitis affects one in five children. However, it’s still common for adults to have it, as well as other types of eczema that start in adult life.

Other types of eczema include:

  • Contact dermatitis – caused by the exposure to chemicals and detergents or metals, such as nickel
  • Pompholyx or dyshydrotic eczema – affects hands and feet and is more common if you wash your hands often, have regular contact with chemicals or had atopic eczema as a child
  • Discoid eczema (also called nummular) – more common in young women or older men and causes round patches on your legs and arms
  • Seborrhoeic dermatitis – affects parts of your body where there are a lot of glands, such as your scalp or the side of your nose
  • Asteatotic eczema – a dry skin condition that’s more common in people over 60
  • Varicose eczema

Eczema is a chronic (long-term) condition which, if severe, can make it difficult to sleep and carry out your daily life. However, it can be controlled with moisturisers and avoiding things that cause it to flare and cause irritated skin.

How to tell if you have eczema

You may have mild symptoms with just a small area of skin affected, or it can be severe with cracks, blisters and oozing on large areas of your skin. If you have an itchy anus, itchy skin or itchy genitals you may have eczema.

Atopic eczema can be confused with other skin conditions, such as psoriasis. It’s important to get a proper diagnosis so you can get the right treatment.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Diagnosis and tests for eczema

Your GP will look at your skin to determine if you have eczema and what type it is. They’ll also ask if you have a family history of allergic skin conditions, or other allergy-related conditions such as hay fever and asthma.

They may ask you about your work or daily activities to find out about things that might be irritating your skin.

Sometimes, your GP will take a skin swab to check for infections or refer you to a dermatologist (a consultant specialising in skin condition).

Causes of eczema

Eczema often starts when your skin can’t maintain a healthy amount of moisture and becomes excessively dry and cracked. This makes it easier for irritants, such as soap, dust and viruses to get into your skin and make it worse.

Left unchecked, eczema often gets worse because the more you scratch it, the more irritated and cracked your skin becomes, increasing the risk of skin infection.

Common treatments for eczema

The earlier you treat your eczema, the better the outcome. Treatments include:

  • Applying moisturisers at least twice a day, every day, to stop your skin from drying out and prevent flare-ups
  • Corticosteroid eczema creams to treat flares, but these shouldn’t be used continually

Avoidance of things that trigger your eczema, such as:

  • Soaps, detergents and chemicals at work
  • Allergens from pollen or pets
  • Food allergies
  • Latex

Your doctor will give you antibiotics if your skin is infected or antihistamines to reduce inflammation.

Other treatments for severe eczema are:

  • Eczema creams called topical calcineurin inhibitors
  • Bandages or dressings to protect your skin
  • Ultraviolet light – a specialist therapy given at a clinic or hospital

In very severe cases, your doctor may prescribe drugs that suppress your immune system.