Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2007;75(5):709-710

What is eczema?

Eczema (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 treated.

Eczema is sometimes called dermatitis (derm-uh-TITE-iss). It can be caused by an allergic reaction to something you touched, or it can affect people who have hay fever or asthma.

What can I do to control my eczema?

  • Try not to touch things that can irritate your skin, such as household cleansers, aftershave lotions, and gasoline.

  • Try not to touch things that make you break out with eczema. Because soaps and wetness can irritate your skin, 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 when you have to put your hands in water. Also, wear gloves when you have to touch 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.

  • Wear gloves when you go outside during the winter. Cold, dry air can make eczema worse.

  • Wear clothes made of cotton or a cotton blend. Wool and some synthetic fabrics can irritate your skin.

  • Care for your skin in the bath or shower. Bathe using small amounts of mild soap. Keep the water temperature cool or warm, not hot. Soaking in the tub for 15 to 20 minutes can be good for your skin because the skin's outer layer can absorb water and become less dry. Use a soft towel to pat your skin dry without rubbing, then apply a moisturizing lotion to your skin right away to seal in the moisture.

  • Use the medicine your doctor prescribes for you. Put it on right after a bath or shower. The medicine for eczema is usually a steroid cream or ointment that you rub on your skin. Follow your doctor's directions for using this medicine. 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 prevent cracks. A plain moisturizer is best. Avoid moisturizers with fragrances 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.

  • Do not scratch or rub the itchy area. Scratching can break the skin. Germs can enter these breaks and cause infection.

  • Do not get too hot and sweaty. Too much heat and sweat can make your skin more irritated and itchy. Try to avoid things that make you hot and sweaty. If you exercise, do it in a cool room and wear light clothing so that you do not sweat as 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.

  • Continue caring for your skin even after your skin has healed. The area where you had the eczema may get irritated again, so it needs special care.

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