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Eczema is a chronic, inflammatory skin condition. A 2010 research review showed that it may affect up to 30 percent of children. It’s also referred to as atopic dermatitis.

Eczema symptoms can start to appear during early infancy or childhood. This condition may also show up in adolescents and adults who didn’t have eczema as children.

Eczema appears to be caused by an interplay of genetic and environmental factors. Not everyone who develops eczema has a family history of the condition. However, having a parent or sibling who has eczema increases the chances that you’ll develop it too.

There is strong scientific evidence that supports the existence of a genetic predisposition to eczema. Multiple studies done in many countries worldwide have found evidence of mutations in several genes which may play a role.

In this article, we’ll explain the research about eczema and genetics, plus look at other causes and triggers for this condition. We’ll also provide information about preventing flare-ups.

Data indicate that several genes may be associated with eczema.

The same 2010 research review above, that analyzed the entire human genome, found several genes which significantly alter the composition and function of skin in people with eczema. Some of these genes impact skin specifically. Others affect the immune system, causing allergic or inflammatory skin responses.

Genes that code for skin function

The FLG gene instructs cells to make a large protein called filaggrin in the outermost layer of skin (epidermis). The epidermis is responsible for maintaining your skin’s barrier function. A healthy skin barrier is able to support moisture retention. It also protects your body from foreign invaders, such as toxins, bacteria, and allergens.

In around 50 percent of people with eczema, the FLG gene has a mutation in its DNA sequence that causes it to instruct cells to make less filaggrin. This compromises the skin’s epidermis, leading to dry, uncomfortable skin that is prone to infection and allergic reactions. People with anomalies in FLG are also prone to asthma and hay fever.

One old 2001 study found that mutations in SPINK5, another gene that instructs cells to make proteins in skin, are prevalent in people with eczema. It is not yet understood why this mutation has an impact.

Genes that code for immune system function

There are several immune genes that are associated with the onset of eczema.

They include interleukin (IL) 4, 5, and 13. An old 2008 research review showed that these genes promote allergic inflammation. They also cause a reduction in skin barrier function and the effectiveness of the immune system’s response to pathogens.

There are many potential causes that are associated with developing eczema. In many instances it may be a combination of several causes, rather than one individual cause, that upticks your chances of developing eczema.

Factors and causes of eczema include:

  • high levels of maternal psychological stress during gestation
  • being exposed as an infant to maternal cigarette smoking and smoking within the household
  • having an overactive immune system
  • skin barrier dysfunction, caused by factors such as immune system dysregulation
  • having certain endocrine disorders, such as thyroid disease
  • having severe or chronically dry skin

It’s important to note that the stress of enduring discrimination, racism, and other racist systems may play a part in developing the condition beyond genetic and the above factors.

Eczema flare-ups can be triggered by environmental factors. They can also be exacerbated by stress and anxiety.

Environmental triggers for eczema include:

  • cold air
  • heat and hot weather
  • irritants in everyday products, such as:
    • detergent
    • perfume
    • soap
    • cosmetics
    • body wash and bubble bath
    • household cleaning products
  • antibacterial ointments
  • cigarette smoke
  • outdoor pollutants
  • airborne allergens
  • some fabrics, such as wool and polyester
  • some metals, such as nickel
  • formaldehyde

Keeping skin moisturized is important, especially if you live in a dry climate. Look for moisturizers that have the National Eczema Association Seal of Acceptance.

You may also wish to keep the air in your home sufficiently hydrated.

Many eczema flare-ups can be prevented if you can identify your triggers and avoid them. These include fabrics that scratch or itch.

You may need to take a trial-and-error approach to identifying your triggers, particularly when it comes to personal care and household products. Reading labels can help, but won’t provide comprehensive information all the time.

Manufacturers are legally allowed to list the word “fragrance” instead of actual ingredients under an old FDA ruling called the Fair Package and Labeling Act. For that reason, you may wish to avoid scented personal care products of all kinds.

Managing your stress level can also help. Strategies to try, include meditation, yoga, and watching funny movies or shows.

Eczema (atopic dermatitis) affects up to 30 percent of all children. Adolescents and adults can also have eczema.

Research indicates that eczema has a strong genetic link. Several genes that affect skin function and the immune system may play a role.

Environmental factors and stress can also cause or trigger eczema.