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Return of the Itch: Eczema

Return of the Itch: Eczema

What is eczema?
What causes eczema?
My skin breaks out sometimes. Do I have eczema?
How is eczema treated?
Eczema is more than skin deep.
I have eczema. What can I do to keep it under control?

What is eczema?
Atopic dermatitis, usually called eczema, is a condition that causes the skin to become extremely itchy, red, and swollen. It can make your skin crack and turn crusty or scaly.

Eczema is chronic, which means it is a long-lasting health problem. A girl may have it all her life. Eczema comes and goes, flaring up and then going away again. It often runs in families, and usually goes along with other conditions, like allergies or asthma . It tends to start in young children. Some people grow out of it, while others have eczema throughout their lives. Even if you once had eczema but you don't get breakouts anymore, you will probably always have dry, sensitive skin. back to top

What causes eczema?
Eczema is a very common problem—more than 15 million people in the United States have it. It's one of the most popular reasons people visit a dermatologist. Nobody knows for sure what causes eczema, but it most likely has a mix of genetic and environmental causes. It seems to go hand-in-hand with hay fever and asthma. A person might have eczema as a child, and get asthma or hay fever later in life. Or, if you have eczema, someone else in your family may have hay fever or asthma. People who get these conditions tend to be very sensitive to things in the environment like dust, pollen, pollution, and commonly used chemicals like formaldehyde.

If someone in your family had eczema, you're more likely to have it. And if you live in a city with a lot of pollution, or a place that is particularly dry, you could be at higher risk. back to top

My skin breaks out sometimes. Do I have eczema?
Everyone's skin breaks out once in a while. You may have acne from time to time. You might get a rash from soap or shampoo that bothers your skin, or from an itchy tag in a new shirt. Having acne or a rash is uncomfortable and can be embarrassing. But it usually goes away in time.

Eczema is different. Eczema is a rash that keeps coming back. You can clear it up, but it can't be cured permanently. Eczema can be red and bumpy or scaly and oozing, and it usually affects the skin in patches. It can even cause small blisters on the skin. And the biggest thing about eczema is that it is very, very itchy. So itchy that you feel like it will drive you crazy if you don't scratch. So itchy that some people scratch until their skin bleeds. But instead of going away, the itch of eczema gets worse the more you scratch it. back to top

How is eczema treated?
Although there is no cure for eczema, there are treatments that can keep flare-ups to a minimum. Here are some of the most common ones:
  • Corticosteroid creams or injections help heal flare-ups and reduce swelling in the skin. (This treatment has lots of side effects.)
  • Antibiotic drugs, usually taken by mouth, help clear up skin infections.
  • Antihistamines help reduce itching.
  • Light therapy (sitting under a special lamp that radiates ultraviolet A and B rays) helps reduce flare-ups.
Two new drug treatments could be available to people with eczema by the end of 2000. The two topical creams, Tacrolimus and Ascomycin, are being studied by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—the government organization that approves all drugs. So far, research has shown that they reduce or even clear up eczema within a few days with fewer side effects than other treatments. While these treatments may help, they cannot cure eczema permanently.

If you have eczema, talk to a dermatologist or other health professional about your concerns and the best treatment for you. back to top

Eczema is more than skin deep.
Having eczema is difficult. Not only does your skin itch and feel scaly, but the thought of people seeing your rash can make you want to hide in your room. Many people who have eczema hide their rash under pants and long-sleeved shirts, even in hot weather.

Eczema can make you want to avoid things your friends do, like swimming or traveling away from home, where a new environment can make your skin flare up. It can keep you from getting a good night's sleep and affect your ability to concentrate on your schoolwork. If your eczema is severe, ask your health professional or an adult you trust about joining a support group so that you can talk about living with eczema with others who have the same condition. back to top

I have eczema. What can I do to keep it under control?
There are steps you can take to help keep your eczema under control:
  • Try not to scratch or rub your skin.
  • Avoid rough clothing that irritates your skin (especially wool—you may be allergic to lanolin). Choose silk or cotton clothing instead.
  • Skip irritants like scented soap, shampoo, bubble bath, deodorant, and perfume. Check the label on all cosmetics, skin care products, and nail polish you buy. Many of them contain fragrances and other ingredients (especially formaldehyde) that can cause a flare-up.
  • After bathing, let your skin air dry or pat it gently with a towel. (Don't rub!)
  • Keep the temperature and humidity in your home about the same all year. You may need to put a humidifier in your room during dry months.
  • Stay away from dust, cigarette smoke, pollen, and animal hair.
  • Try not to get stressed out. Stress can bring on eczema flare-ups.
If you have severe, stubborn eczema on your hands or any other area, talk to your health professional about testing your skin for contact allergens. These are substances such as preservatives, nickel, and formaldehyde. This test can help identify which substances cause your eczema. That knowledge gives you the power to make healthy choices about the things you put in and on your body. back to top

Last Modified Date: 4/4/2001
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