Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is an inflammatory skin condition that affects about 10 percent of people worldwide. It develops as a result of an immune system reaction to various substances, ranging from allergens (substances that cause an allergic reaction) to chemicals.
Eczema creates rashes that may be:
- sore or painful
For some, eczema is considered a chronic (lifelong) condition, with flare-ups taking a few weeks to subside with treatment. Many people — especially children — can expect their symptoms to subside with age.
While you won’t necessarily have a particular eczema rash forever, you may be at a risk for flare-ups whenever you encounter your eczema triggers (substances that bring on a flareup).
There’s no known cure for eczema, and the rashes won’t simply go away if left untreated. For most people, eczema is a chronic condition that requires careful avoidance of triggers to help prevent flare-ups.
Age is also thought to play a role: About 60 percent of people who have eczema developing it as infants. If you develop eczema as a child, then you may experience improved symptoms as you get older.
The healing time from eczema ultimately depends on the underlying cause.
If you have a flare-up from a contact eczema trigger, the rash will likely go away within a few weeks upon treatment. (A contact eczema trigger is a substance that brings on a flare when it comes in contact with your skin.)
Allergic triggers may result in longer-lasting flares.
Eczema can be broken down into three stages:
- Chronic. This is the most common stage of eczema, and it often develops in children before they’re 12 months old. Chronic eczema generally lasts over a lifetime with occasional flare-ups, although childhood eczema may improve with age.
- Acute. Short-term eczema may be the result of skin sensitivities after coming into contact with an irritating substance. Acute cases last just a few weeks as your skin heals.
- Subacute. This is part of the healing phase of eczema, which can still flare back up into a full rash if left untreated.
While there’s no known cure for eczema, you can help reduce the occurrence of flare-ups through the following preventive measures.
Avoid your triggers
The best way you can prevent an eczema flare-up is to avoid your triggers when possible. These include any known allergens, as well as sensitivities to chemicals or fabrics.
Stress and hormones can also cause flare-ups or make them worse.
Protect your skin
Protecting your skin’s barrier with a moisturizing lotion is important, especially after bathing. Use a lotion that’s free of preservatives and fragrances.
Another way you can protect your skin is by avoiding the temptation to scratch any eczema rashes that do develop. This can help prevent cracks and cuts, which can lead to a risk of infection.
If you have open wounds, be sure to protect your skin with bandages.
Control the heat and humidity
While eczema itself can sometimes be dry, this skin condition is typically worsened by heat and humidity. Consider keeping your home a bit drier and cooler as a way of managing and preventing flare-ups.
Some people, however, experience flare-ups during the dry winter months. If this is you, using a humidifier can help ease your eczema symptoms.
Body heat can also play a role. Wearing breathable fabrics such as cotton can help heat escape from your body. Taking cool showers after workouts may also help.
Eczema is caused by underlying inflammation. The development of this inflammatory skin condition involves substances that create negative immune reactions. These include various allergens as well as hereditary and environmental factors.
One common cause of eczema is allergies. The subsequent rashes can develop in response to certain allergens, including pollen, pet dander, and foods.
Another possible cause of eczema is physical contact with chemicals, fabrics, and dyes to which you may be allergic. The resulting skin rash is called contact dermatitis. Possible culprits include:
- soaps or detergents with preservatives and dyes
- plants, such as poison ivy
- rubbing alcohol
While eczema isn’t a contagious disease, it does tend to run in families. You may be especially at risk if a parent or other relative has a history of allergies and related eczema symptoms.
Digestive issues and food sensitivities can also play a role, although their links to eczema aren’t as well established.
Eczema is treated based on your underlying triggers. A doctor may recommend one or a combination of the following:
Depending on the cause of your eczema flare-up, you may need to take oral allergy medications, topical corticosteroid creams, or both.
While steroid creams you apply to your skin are intended for short-term use, you may need to use allergy medicines you take by mouth year-round to help prevent associated symptoms.
Another option is immunosuppressant drugs, which slow down immune responses in the case of severe eczema.
Over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines may help reduce incidence of eczema. Additionally, these medications maybe help prevent the urge to scratch rashes, especially in children.
Always talk to a doctor about OTC allergy medications before you take them.
For severe allergies that don’t respond well to medications, a doctor may recommend allergen immunotherapy, or “allergy shots.” These shots are composed of small amounts of the substances to which you’re allergic.
Your doctor will increase your dosage slowly over the course of several months. The idea here is to help build immunity to your allergen triggers so that you experience fewer flare-ups overall.
Natural treatments at home
Aside from moisturizing your skin, some natural treatments may help heal your skin.
Oatmeal baths are one type of natural treatment that can soothe the itchiness and discomfort of eczema rashes. Be sure to use lukewarm water and follow up with a moisturizer immediately after.
For most people, eczema is a lifelong condition that consists of occasional flare-ups.
Once treated, it can take several weeks for rashes to clear up. Since these rashes develop from negative immune reactions, there’s also a risk that more flare-ups will occur unless you reduce your exposure to triggers.
While eczema can sometimes develop during adulthood, the onset is more common in children. There’s also a good chance that childhood eczema improves with age.
For more information about treatments that can ease your eczema symptoms, talk to your doctor.