Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2003;68(8):1603-1604

What is eczema?

Eczema (say: “ex-zuh-mah”) is an itching, scaling, swelling rash on the skin. The upper layers of the skin turn red and swell (inflame), and form dry or greasy scales (skin flakes). In severe cases, yellow and red pimples form on the skin, behind the ears, in the ear canal, on the eyebrows, on and around the nose, and on the chest. There is no cure for eczema, but the symptoms can be relieved with treatment.

Eczema is sometimes referred to as “dermatitis.” It can be caused by an allergic reaction to something you touched (called “contact dermatitis”), or it can affect people who have hay fever or asthma (called “atopic dermatitis”).

What can I do to control my eczema?

  • Limit your contact with things that can irritate your skin. Some of these things include certain household cleansers, detergents, aftershave lotions, soaps, gasoline, and turpentine and other solvents. Try to avoid touching things that make you break out with eczema. Because soaps and wetness can cause skin irritation, wash your hands only when necessary, especially if you have eczema on your hands. Be sure to dry your hands completely after you wash them.

  • Wear gloves to protect the skin on your hands. Wear vinyl or plastic gloves for work that requires you to put your hands in water. Also, wear gloves when your hands will be exposed to anything that can irritate your skin. Wear cotton gloves under plastic gloves to soak up the sweat from your hands. Take occasional breaks and remove your gloves to prevent a build-up of sweat inside the gloves.

Wear gloves when you go outside during the winter. Cold air and low humidity can dry your skin, and dryness can make eczema worse.

  • Wear clothes made of cotton or a cotton blend. Wool and some synthetic fabrics can irritate your skin. Most people with sensitive skin feel better in clothes made of cotton or a cotton blend.

  • Care for your skin in the bath or shower. Bathe only with a mild soap, such as Dove, Basis, or Oil of Olay. Use a small amount of soap when bathing. Keep the water temperature cool or warm, not hot. Soaking in the tub for a short time can be good for your skin because the skin's outer layer can absorb water and become less dry. Soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Then use a soft towel to pat your skin dry without rubbing. Immediately after drying with the towel, apply a moisturizer lotion to your skin. It helps seal in the moisture.

  • Use the medicine your doctor prescribes for you. When your eczema flares up (gets worse), use the medicine prescribed by your doctor. Put it on right after a bath or shower. The medicine for eczema is usually a steroid cream that you rub on your skin. Follow your doctor's directions for using this medicine or check the label for proper use. Call your doctor if your skin does not get better after three weeks of using the medicine every day.

  • Use a moisturizer on your skin every day. Moisturizers help keep your skin soft and flexible. They prevent skin cracks. A plain moisturizer is best. Avoid moisturizers with fragrances (perfume) and a lot of extra ingredients. A good, cheap moisturizer is plain petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline). Use moisturizers that are more greasy than creamy, because creams usually have more preservatives in them. Regular use of a moisturizer can help prevent the dry skin that is common in winter.

  • Avoid scratching or rubbing the itchy area. Try not to scratch the irritated area on your skin even if it itches. Scratching can break the skin. Bacteria can enter these breaks and cause infection.

  • Avoid getting too hot and sweaty. Too much heat and sweat can make your skin more irritated and itchy. Try to avoid activities that make you hot and sweaty. If you exercise, try exercising in a cool room and wear light clothing so that you do not sweat so much.

  • Learn how to manage stress in your life. Eczema can flare up when you are under stress. Learn how to recognize and cope with stress. Stress reduction techniques can help. Changing your activities to reduce daily stress can be helpful.

  • Continue skin care even after your skin has healed. The area where you had the eczema may get irritated again, so it needs special care. Continue to follow the tips in this handout even after your eczema has healed.

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