Understanding Eczema’s Causes and Symptoms

The problem with many people - eczema on hand.

Key Points

  • Eczema makes you feel like you're trapped all alone on an itchy island of flaky skin and sleepless nights.

  • Eczema affects over 31 million in the United States alone and millions more worldwide.

  • Understanding eczema's causes and symptoms is an important first step in understanding how to treat and live with this chronic condition.

  • Talk to your doctor or dermatologist about your eczema. They'll help you choose the best treatment options based on your unique circumstances and medical history.

If you suffer from eczema, it can sometimes make you feel all alone — alone with the itching, the flaky skin, the general discomfort, and the sleepless nights. Eczema affects millions of people worldwide. If you or someone you know is struggling with eczema, it's essential to understand the common causes and symptoms to better manage and prevent flare-ups.

This comprehensive guide explores the basics of eczema, its potential triggers, different types, how to identify it in adults and children, and the importance of seeking medical advice for proper diagnosis. After reading, you should have a clearer understanding of eczema and the tools you need to take control of your skin's health.

Overview of Eczema and Its Prevalence

Eczema, or dermatitis, is a chronic skin condition characterized by inflammation and itching. It can occur at any age and may persist throughout life, although it's more common in children. Eczema is often a multifactorial condition resulting from genetic and environmental factors. 

Prevalence: Eczema is widespread, with over 31 million people in the United States alone affected by it. Eczema affects an estimated 15-20 percent of the total population worldwide. This condition isn't contagious but may significantly impact an individual's quality of life.

Potential Triggers and Environmental Factors

To ensure effective management, patients with eczema should actively work to understand the potential triggers and environmental factors that exacerbate the condition. While the exact cause of eczema remains unknown, several factors can contribute to its development and flare-ups.

  • Genetics: Eczema often runs in families, suggesting a genetic predisposition. If one or both parents have a history of eczema or other allergic conditions, the risk of a child developing eczema increases.

  • Immune System Dysfunction: People with eczema tend to have an overactive immune system, leading to excessive inflammation and skin irritation.

  • Allergens: Allergens like pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and certain foods can trigger eczema symptoms in individuals with sensitivities.

  • Irritants: Harsh soaps, detergents, fragrances, and skin care products containing alcohol or other irritants can worsen eczema symptoms.

  • Weather: Dry and cold weather can lead to dry skin, making eczema symptoms more pronounced. On the other hand, excessive sweating during hot weather can also trigger flare-ups.

  • Stress: Emotional stress can weaken the immune system and exacerbate eczema symptoms. Stress-reduction techniques, such as mindfulness and relaxation exercises, may help manage the condition.

  • Microbial Infections: Bacterial, viral, or fungal infections can trigger eczema flare-ups. Scratching the affected skin can introduce bacteria and worsen the condition.

Is Eczema in the Air We Breathe?

In January 2023, researchers with the National Institutes of Health released the findings of a study that looked into the causes of a steady rise in eczema cases since the 1970s. Those findings suggest that the increase in cases may relate to exhaust fumes produced by modern vehicles using a pollution control device known as a catalytic converter.

Although catalytic converters eliminate many harmful substances produced when internal combustion engines burn gasoline, they also have a byproduct particle known as isocyanates. The study's researchers believe these isocyanates may be one significant factor behind a spike in eczema cases two to three times since 1975.

The researchers uncovered evidence that diisocyanates, a chemical used in manufacturing polyurethane products, may have also played a role in the spike in cases.

Woman scratches her arm

Eczema Types and Symptoms

Eczema isn't a one-size-fits-all condition; it encompasses various types, each with its unique set of symptoms. Here are the most common types of eczema.

Atopic Dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis is the most prevalent form of eczema and is often seen in children. It's characterized by dry, itchy skin, redness, and a tendency to flare up in response to allergens or irritants. In severe cases of atopic dermatitis, blisters may form that may ooze and become crusty.

Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when the skin comes into direct contact with a substance that causes an allergic reaction (allergic contact dermatitis) or irritates the skin (irritant contact dermatitis). It's characterized by redness, itching, and often the development of a rash or blisters on the skin in the area where contact with the irritant or allergen occurred.

Nummular Eczema

Nummular eczema, also known as discoid eczema or nummular dermatitis, develops as round or oval-shaped patches of irritated, inflamed skin. These patches often appear as coin-sized or disc-shaped lesions, hence the name "nummular," which derives from the Latin word "coin."

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis primarily affects areas of the body with a high concentration of sebaceous (oil-producing) glands. It typically manifests as red, scaly, and sometimes itchy patches on the skin, often with a greasy or waxy appearance. This condition can occur on various body parts but most commonly affects the scalp and facial areas.

Dyshidrotic Eczema

Dyshidrotic eczema, also known as dyshidrosis or pompholyx eczema, primarily affects the hands and feet, particularly the palms, fingers, soles, and toes. This condition develops as small, itchy blisters on the skin, along with redness, inflammation, and sometimes peeling. Dyshidrotic eczema can be uncomfortable and can interfere with daily activities due to the discomfort and itchiness it causes

Stasis Dermatitis

Stasis dermatitis, also known as gravitational dermatitis or venous eczema, occurs when there's poor blood circulation in the lower legs, often due to chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). This reduced blood flow can lead to a buildup of fluid and pressure in the veins of the legs, resulting in various skin changes and symptoms.

How To Identify Eczema in Adults and Children

The earlier doctors and patients, including children and adults, recognize eczema, the more effectively it can be managed. The common signs and symptoms of eczema include:

  • Itchy Skin: Eczema is notorious for causing intense itching, leading to scratching and further skin damage.

  • Redness and Inflammation: Affected skin areas often appear red and inflamed.

  • Dry and Scaly Skin: Eczema-prone skin tends to be dry and may develop flakiness or rough patches.

  • Blisters or Oozing: In some types of eczema, like dyshidrotic eczema, small blisters may form, which can ooze and become crusted over time.

  • Thickened Skin: Chronic scratching can lead to the thickening of the skin, known as lichenification.

  • Skin Discoloration: Over time, eczema may lead to changes in skin pigmentation, causing darker or lighter patches.

  • In children, eczema often appears on the face, scalp, and outer limbs. In adults, it can manifest on the hands, feet, neck, and other areas. The intensity and location of symptoms can vary from person to person.

Seeking Medical Advice for Proper Diagnosis

If you suspect you or your child has eczema, seek medical advice for a proper diagnosis. A dermatologist or healthcare provider can examine the affected skin, discuss your medical history, and potentially conduct tests to rule out other skin conditions. Accurate diagnosis is essential for developing an effective treatment plan.

Eczema Treatment Options 

There are several options for treating eczema. Whether you need an over-the-counter remedy or a prescription-strength medicine that hydrates or even suppresses the body's immune response to treat the condition, your doctor or dermatologist can help you determine the best course of treatment.

Topical Steroids

Topical anti-inflammatory creams or ointments reduce redness and itching. They work by suppressing the body's immune response, which runs out of control in eczema and is particularly pronounced in severe cases.


Regular application of moisturizers helps keep the skin hydrated and can prevent flare-ups. These treatments create a barrier against the skin that locks in moisture and keeps it there.

Avoiding Triggers

You know your body better than anyone else, and having eczema helps you to know it even better. Use that knowledge to identify what triggers your eczema and get into a habit of avoiding them. Eczema triggers include specific allergens, irritants, or even specific weather or temperature conditions.


Antihistamines work by blocking the effects of histamine, a chemical produced by the body in response to allergens or other triggers. When these chemicals build to a certain point, they trigger the body's immune response — eczema. Antihistamines help to alleviate the itching and discomfort of eczema.

Prescription Medications

In severe cases of eczema, a dermatologist may prescribe oral medications, which include steroidal immunosuppressants. As with all other medical conditions and prescribed medications, eczema patients need to follow their doctor's advice and directions closely.

Wet Wrap Therapy

Wet wrap therapy, also known as wet wrapping, is mainly used for atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis. It involves applying a series of damp dressings or clothing layers to the affected areas of the skin to soothe inflammation, reduce itching, and improve hydration. The moisture component of this treatment type typically includes some form of moisturizer or emollient cream. Wet wrap therapy is often used in addition to other skincare treatments and under the guidance of a healthcare provider or dermatologist.


Phototherapy, also known as light therapy, is a medical treatment that involves exposing the skin to specific wavelengths of ultraviolet light to manage various skin conditions. Skincare professionals conduct this treatment under controlled conditions using specialized equipment. It's used in certain cases of eczema.

Take Control of Your Eczema, Your Skin

Health Central writes, "Severe eczema isn't just a skin issue; it's a quality of life issue. It's an itch that can wake you from the deepest sleep — and keep you up for hours. It's painful (and embarrassing) red, crusty skin that can make you call in sick to work. It's topical treatments that don't deliver lasting relief, making you feel completely hopeless."

If you have severe eczema, you already know this information — you've lived it. If your eczema isn't quite that severe, your aim should be to keep it under control and prevent it from ever reaching this point.

Understanding the causes and symptoms of eczema is the first step toward managing this chronic skin condition. Eczema's prevalence and potential to impact daily life make it crucial to recognize its triggers and seek proper medical guidance for diagnosis and treatment.

You needn't stop your eczema journey in your doctor's office. There are numerous online and real-world resources, including support groups and informational material, to help you learn more about what eczema is and isn't, how to treat it, and what to expect as a sufferer. With the right knowledge and approach, you take greater control of your eczema and skin health and enjoy a better, more normal quality of life.

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