Eczema is a skin disease that can induce redness, itchiness, dryness, and inflammation of the skin. While the root cause of eczema isn’t fully understood, identifying and avoiding potential triggers is one way to manage flare-ups.
Mild to moderate eczema may respond well to over-the-counter (OTC) topical creams. If you have severe eczema, you may need to take additional measures to limit exposure to certain triggers. You may also need a prescription treatment by a dermatologist.
Read on to learn more about eczema triggers and flare-ups and how you can work with your own body to ease the symptoms.
Eczema is caused by a disordered immune system and inflammation, and a flare-up is the physical manifestation of that inflammation.
While eczema triggers can be very personal, the symptoms of flare-ups tend to be similar. They include:
- a red, itchy rash
- itchy skin that oozes, “weeps” fluid, or even bleeds when scratched
- dry, discolored skin
- sleep disturbances caused by itchiness
The exact causes of your skin inflammation may not be the same as someone else who is also living with eczema, but there are some common triggers that most people with eczema should look out for:
When your skin becomes too dry, it can feel tight, rough, or even scaly, and can increase the chances of having an eczema flare. You may also end up scratching dry skin, causing more skin irritation.
Keeping your skin well moisturized, especially in the winter or in dry climates, is one way to combat dry skin.
Stress and anxiety
Emotional stress and anxiety don’t cause eczema, but they can provoke symptoms.
The body releases a hormone called cortisol when it’s under stress. When too much cortisol is released due to chronic or severe stress, it can dysregulate the immune system and cause an inflammatory response in the skin.
Dyshidrotic eczema is a specific type of eczema that commonly manifests as small, intensely itchy blisters on the hands, as well as feet. One of the dyshidrotic eczema’s main triggers is stress.
If you’re having difficulty controlling anxiety or stress, talk with your doctor about ways to manage it on your own or with the help of therapy or medication.
Products we use every day — like laundry detergent, soaps, and fragrances — can contain ingredients that may irritate your skin.
Some other common irritants that may trigger eczema:
- cigarette smoke
- certain fragrances
- metals (like nickel)
- certain antibacterial topicals
- paraphenylene-diamine (sometimes used in things like leather dyes and temporary tattoos)
- formaldehyde (found in household disinfectants, some vaccines, glues, and adhesives)
- isothiazolinone (an antibacterial that can be found in personal care products like baby wipes)
- cocamidopropyl betaine (often used to thicken shampoos and lotions)
While things like scented laundry detergents and stress may be familiar triggers, a few other eczema triggers may surprise you.
Cold weather, hot weather, dry weather, “in-between” weather when the seasons are changing — almost any kind of weather change can affect your eczema.
While researchers aren’t quite sure why changes in the weather can act as eczema triggers, certain aspects of the seasons like humidity and extreme cold can affect anyone’s skin, whether they have eczema or not.
Noticing what kind of weather affects your skin the most can help you figure out how to manage flare-ups. If cold, dry weather does it, do your best to stay as moisturized as possible in the winter. If hot, humid weather does it, try to maintain an even body temperature and lessen sweat by wearing loose, cotton clothing and staying hydrated.
Food allergies, such as allergies to milk, eggs, peanuts, and wheat, have been identified as eczema triggers in some individuals.
Similarly, you might experience an eczema flare-up after you consume foods and ingredients that are known to be inflammatory. Examples include added sugars (think: soda), refined carbohydrates (think: pastries), and gluten (think: white bread).
If you’ve been noticing a connection between eczema flares and certain foods, talk with your doctor and a certified dietician to see whether eliminating those foods for a period of time might help.
Like many laundry detergents, scented products that you apply to the body can also worsen eczema. Some people with eczema also have contact dermatitis, which is when rashes occur after contact with a substance.
Scented soaps, lotions, perfumes, shower gels, and other personal care items can irritate the skin in some people and trigger a flare.
If you believe your skin is sensitive to certain personal care products, look for hypoallergenic, scent-free brands. Closely monitor your symptoms after starting a new product. If your symptoms worsen, discontinue use.
Sometimes, it’s not just the detergent or scented product that causes an eczema flare, but the actual fabrics you’re wearing. Many people are sensitive to materials like polyester or wool, which can trigger itchiness and redness.
Avoid wearing any clothes that appear to worsen your condition, or wear an extra layer under the garment to protect your skin.
While physical activity is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, if you are living with eczema, it’s possible that sweating a lot could trigger a flare.
This is because human sweat contains trace elements of nickel, zinc, copper, iron, and sodium, among others, and the build-up of these natural chemicals on your skin may irritate your eczema.
If you notice eczema flares after exercising, lower the intensity of your workout or choose a cooler time of day to complete workout sessions.
Keep a fan nearby (if possible), wipe your sweat as often as you can with a towel, and always take a shower immediately after completing your workout.
While hormonal fluctuations are completely normal, if you notice a connection between periods of your cycle and eczema flare-ups, consult with your doctor about topical solutions that may provide relief.
Eczema is common in babies and children, so it’s important to protect their delicate skin. Eczema patches can develop around the cheeks and chin of a drooling baby.
Saliva or drooling doesn’t cause eczema, but it can dry out a baby’s skin and cause itchy, red spots. To avoid this, apply lotions or creams that are safe for sensitive skin.
While there is no medication currently available that cures eczema, there are a few ways to prevent and treat flares.
First, knowing your personal eczema triggers can help you make informed choices around diet and activities. Keeping a journal may help you connect certain foods, weather, products, or activities to flares.
Moisturizing your skin as much as possible can also help, as can bathing after exercising or other high-energy activities.
If your eczema is more severe, your doctor may have prescribed topical and/or immunosuppressant medications to reduce itching. Using these medicines as prescribed can help prevent eczema flares.
Treatment options for eczema vary depending on the type you have and the severity. They can include everything from lifestyle changes, to over-the-counter (OTC) remedies, to prescription medications.
Since triggers are so personal, the type of flare management that works best for you will also be personal and may include some trial and error incorporating both lifestyles changes and other treatments prescribed by your doctor.
Some treatment options include:
- over-the-counter medications like antihistamines
- prescription topicals (medications applied to the skin to manage symptoms and ease inflammation)
- biologics (the one for ezcema is typically given via subcutaneous injection, treating inflammation at the immune system level)
- oral immunosuppressants (which ease the symtoms of eczema by supressing the entire immune system)
- light therapy
Eczema is an incredibly common disease. It’s so common, that over 31 million Americans are living with some form of it.
Managing your eczema flare-ups is more than using creams and medications. It also involves awareness of your potential triggers and making lifestyle changes that lessen the potential of flares.
While it can be a frustrating disease, you have the power to manage your symptoms — especially when you develop a plan with your doctor and stick to it.