Eczema might be best-known as a childhood condition, but it can also occur in adults, especially older adults. It often occurs in childhood, tapers off as children get older, but slowly comes back in adulthood and older age.
Many symptoms are similar in children and adults, but there are differences. Knowing more about the condition can help you talk with a healthcare professional about your symptoms and treatment options.
Eczema can and does occur in adults. Sometimes, eczema starts in childhood, clears up for a while, and then returns later on. In other people, it may suddenly appear for the first time as an adult.
According to the National Eczema Association, 1 in 4 adults report that their symptoms first appeared in adulthood. Multiracial or white adults have the highest prevalence of adult-onset eczema, although studies vary on the specific percentages.
Overall, approximately 10 percent of adults in the United States are living with eczema.
Adults can get any type of eczema, including atopic dermatitis. Certain types of eczema are more common in adults. These can include:
According to the National Eczema Society, about half of people with eczema lack filaggrin, a protein that has been strongly associated with atopic eczema. It’s linked to a faulty skin barrier, which increases the risk of eczema.
As people get older, their skin gets drier, which also makes it more prone to developing eczema.
Although eczema symptoms in adults share some similarities with childhood eczema. Similar symptoms can include:
- intense itching, which can even cause sleeplessness
- skin infections
- feelings of depression or anxiety
- increased risk of asthma, hay fever, and other allergies
- lower quality of life, if untreated
However, there are some differences. First, the skin usually looks very scaly and is very dry in adults. Adults also tend to get eczema on different areas of the body than children do.
Areas of adult eczema can include:
- backs of the knees
- crooks of the elbows
- back of the neck
- face and around the eyes
In adults, it’s important not to diagnose eczema too quickly and ignore other possibilities. It may look like eczema, but other diseases, like skin cancer, may present similarly. So a thorough evaluation is necessary to rule out other serious conditions.
Although there’s no specific test to diagnose eczema, a healthcare professional may be able to identify your symptoms as eczema.
You may be asked questions about your:
- family history of allergies and eczema
- personal history of eczema
- skin care routine
- recent stressors
To rule out other conditions, a doctor may order a skin scraping or a small skin biopsy.
There are various types of treatments to manage eczema. A doctor can go over the different options with you and create a treatment plan that works for your specific type of eczema and symptoms.
Treatments can include lifestyle changes, medications (including over-the-counter treatments), and alternative treatments. We’ll discuss each of these options in more detail below.
Using soaps, body washes, and other skin products without fragrances or irritating chemicals can help reduce flare-ups. Regular moisturizing, like with petroleum jelly, can also help keep your skin healthy.
While there are over-the-counter treatments for eczema, these are generally mild and only work on very mild eczema. Sometimes, prescription medication is necessary.
There are a few different categories of oral medications you might be prescribed:
- Cortisone. Cortisone (steroid) creams are used to reduce inflammation, swelling, and itchiness.
- Immunosuppressants. If you have severe eczema that has not responded to treatment, you may need immunosuppressants. These medications stop your immune system from overreacting. Since eczema has been found to be an autoimmune disease, immunosuppressants may be necessary for severe cases.
- Biologics. Biologic medications are made from parts of living organisms, like cells from animals, plants, or microbes. If your eczema hasn’t gotten better with topical treatments, a doctor may prescribe a biologic. The medication works by limiting a specific part of your immune system’s response — a protein chemical messenger called an interleukin — that can lead to skin inflammation.
Natural remedies may help ease the symptoms of eczema, but check with a doctor before using herbal supplements or treatments.
Alternative treatments for eczema can include:
Although eczema is a chronic condition, it can be treated and managed. Making some lifestyle changes, managing stress, sticking to a skin care routine, and following a doctor’s treatment plan can help you stave off eczema flare-ups.
Treatment is effective for eczema. If you’re not seeing results from topical treatments, oral steroids, immunosuppressants, or biologics may be necessary. A doctor can work with you to find the best treatment plan for your skin.