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What Is Eczema?
Eczema is a group of medical conditions that causes the skin to become inflamed and irritated. Atopic eczema, one of the most common types, usually develops before the age of five. It is associated with other allergic conditions such as asthma and hay fever.
About 10% to 20% of infants and about 3% of adults and children in the U.S. are affected by eczema. Most infants with this condition outgrow it by the age of ten, while some people continue to have symptoms on and off throughout their lives. The disease can be controlled with proper treatment.
What Are The Symptoms of Eczema?
No matter which part of the skin is affected, eczema is almost always itchy. Sometimes a rash appears, most commonly on the face, the back of the knees, wrists, hands, or feet. It may also affect other areas of the body as well.
Affected areas are usually very dry, scaly, or thickened. Fair-skinned people may see skin that is reddish and then turns brown. Eczema can affect pigmentation in darker-skinned people, making the affected area look lighter or darker than usual.
In infants, eczema may appear as an oozing, crusted condition on the face and scalp, but patches can appear anywhere on the body.
What Causes Eczema?
The exact cause of eczema is unknown, but researchers believe that it is linked to an overactive response by the body’s immune system to an irritant or allergen. Eczema is also common in families with a history of asthma, allergies, or atopic dermatitis.
Some people may experience flare-ups of the itchy rash in response to certain allergies or conditions. For example, some can get a flare-up by coming into contact with rough or coarse materials. Others can experience symptoms when feeling too hot, too cold, or when overexposed to an allergen (such as scented household products or animal dander). Upper respiratory infections or colds may also trigger flare-ups, because stress on the body may worsen the symptoms.
There is no cure for eczema, but most people can effectively manage their disease with medical treatment and by avoiding irritants. The condition is not contagious and can’t be spread to other people.
How Is Eczema Diagnosed?
A dermatologist can diagnose eczema by looking at your skin for rashes and by asking a few questions. These questions include whether any of your family members have had eczema, asthma, or hay fever.
Since many people with eczema also have allergies, your doctor may perform patch testing to determine possible allergic triggers. Children with eczema are especially likely to be tested for allergies. Foods do not cause eczema, but some food allergies can worsen the skin condition. Your dermatologist may refer you to an allergist to test for allergies to foods including dairy, nuts, and shellfish.
How Is Eczema Treated?
The goal for your eczema treatment is to relieve and prevent itching, which can lead to infection. Since the disease makes the skin dry and itchy, the use of non-scented lotions is recommended to keep the skin moist. You may also use cold compresses to relieve itching.
An over-the-counter product, such as Hydrocortisone 1% ointment, or prescription creams and ointments containing corticosteroids, are often prescribed to reduce inflammation. If the affected area gets infected, your dermatologist may also prescribe topical and oral antibiotics to kill the bacteria.
Other treatments include:
- Antihistamines (to lessen severe itching)
- Prednisone (to treat severe flare-ups)
- Topical immunomodulators (Elidel cream and Protopic ointment) which reduce the immune system’s inflammatory response to prevent flare-ups. These agents are especially useful to treat eczema on sensitive parts of the body, including the face and skin fold areas, where the use of topical steroids can harm the skin.
How Can Eczema Flare-Ups Be Prevented?
Following these tips can help avoid or reduce eczema outbreaks:
- Moisturize often.
- Avoid sudden changes in temperature or humidity.
- Try to prevent sweating or overheating.
- Reduce stress.
- Avoid materials such as wool that are scratchy.
- Don’t use harsh soaps, solvents, and detergents.
- Stay away from foods that may cause an outbreak.
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