What is Eczema?

Eczema Quick Fact Sheet

What is Eczema?
Eczema is a general term for any type of dermatitis or “itchy rash”. There are several skin diseases that are eczemas; a partial list of eczemas includes:

  • atopic dermatitis
  • contact dermatitis
  • dyshidrotic eczema
  • nummular eczema
  • seborrheic dermatitis

All types of eczemas cause itching and redness and some will blister, weep or peel.

Atopic Dermatitis (AD)
Atopic dermatitis is the most severe and chronic (long-lasting) kind of eczema. Atopic dermatitis is a disease that causes itchy, inflamed skin. It almost always begins in childhood, usually during infancy. Physicians estimate that 65 percent of eczema patients are diagnosed in the first year of life and 90 percent of patients experience it before age five. Often the symptoms fade during childhood, though “most” will have AD for life. It is estimated that atopic dermatitis affects over 30 million Americans. It typically affects the insides of the elbows, backs of the knees, and the face but can cover most of the body. Atopic dermatitis falls into a category of diseases called atopy, a term originally used to describe the allergic conditions asthma and hay fever. Atopic dermatitis was included in the atopy category because it often affects people who either suffer from asthma and/or hay fever or have family members who do; but now have been genetically connected. Physicians often refer to these three diseases as the “atopy triad”. The disease by its very nature can be episodic. People with atopic dermatitis tend to have high staph levels on their skin, although atopic dermatitis is not infectious to other people.

Contact Dermatitis (Allergic or Irritant)
Contact dermatitis is a reaction that can occur when the skin comes in contact with certain substances, which can cause skin inflammation. Irritants are substances that cause burning, itching or redness. Common irritants include solvents, industrial chemicals, detergents, fumes, tobacco smoke, paints, bleach, woolen fabrics, acidic foods, astringents and other alcohol (excluding cetyl alcohol) containing skin care products, and some soaps and fragrances. Allergens are usually animal or vegetable proteins from foods, pollens, or pets. Contact dermatitis is most often seen around the hands or parts of the body that touched the irritant/allergen.

Dyshidrotic Dermatitis (Pompholyx)
This is a blistering type of eczema, which is twice as common in women. It is limited to the fingers, palms and soles of the feet. Your hands may have itchy, scaly patches of skin that flake constantly or become red cracked and painful.

Nummular Dermatitis (Discoid)
Dry skin in the winter months can cause dry non-itchy round patches. It can affect any part of the body particularly the lower leg. One or many patches appear, and may persist for weeks or months. Discoid eczema does not run in families, and unlike atopic dermatitis, it is not associated with asthma. It does not result from food allergy. It is not infectious to other people, although bacteria sometimes secondarily infect it. Discoid eczema is more common in males.

Seborrheic Dermatitis
Red, scaly, itchy rash in various locations on the body. The scalp, sides of the nose, eyebrows, eyelids, and the skin behind the ears and middle of the chest are the most common areas affected. Dandruff (as seborrheic, is caused by a fungal infection) appears as scaling on the scalp without redness. Seborrhea is oiliness of the skin, especially of the scalp and face, without redness or scaling. Seborrheic Dermatitis has both redness and scaling.

Management of Eczema

Do I want to use prescription drugs or over the counter medications?
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are available without a prescription because they contain the lowest potency of active ingredients. They are not designed to treat the causes of a disease, but to give some relief of symptoms. Many good moisturizers are available as OTC products. They are important in terms of prevention and maintenance to reduce eczema’s impact. Regular use of these products may reduce the frequency of flare-ups. Prescription medicines, by contrast, are usually much more powerful in providing some relief of the symptoms. They are closely regulated in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and are approved for use in treating a specific disease only after they have demonstrated effectiveness and safety. No prescription drug is free of side effects, and FDA approval is given to drugs with the understanding that they must be used with caution to avoid the negative effects which could result in something worse than the disease itself. Consequently, these drugs must be administered under the watchful eye of a licensed prescriber-a doctor, or in some states, a nurse practitioner.

What are FDA approved prescription therapies?
Topical steroids have been the standard treatment for eczema, with oral steroids being prescribed only for severe flare-ups. Recently, however, the FDA has approved a new class of drugs called Topical Immunomodulators (TIMs). At this time there are two FDA approved non-steroid drugs: tacrolimus and pimecrolimus. Topical anesthetics, antibiotics, antihistamines, antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory drugs are available in creams, gels, ointments, lotions and solutions. Most of these classes of drugs can also be administered orally.

What about alternative or complimentary medication?
Alternative medications also have ingredients that may have irritating or allergenic effects for some people, as with any treatments. It is important to discuss with your physician any alternative medication that you may purchase at a health food store as it may have an adverse reaction to your eczema or another medication you may be taking.

Are there plants and vegetables to avoid?
Everyone knows about obvious culprits like poison ivy, poison oak and stinging nettles, but for people with eczema trying to avoid any plants with fuzzy leaves and stems is a good idea. Alliums, which include garlic, onions, chives, and leeks, tend to contain allergens that are more irritant than allergen. Citric fruits like lemons, limes and oranges may cause phototoxicity problems. You can get a severe rash from contact with a mango rind. The saps of certain trees are also phototoxic. Daisies (member of a family which includes dandelions, artichokes, chrysanthemum, sunflowers and yarrow) contain a variety of the allergens called sesquiterpene lactones in their stems, leaves, and flowers. If handled, they can produce a localized rash, and they (particularly dried ragweed) may also cause airborne contact dermatitis. Tulips contain an allergen called tuliposideA that often causes a fissured, fingertip dermatitis called “tulip fingers”. Poinsettias are also very irritating mostly because of a sticky sap it exudes. Handle all plants diligently (or with latex free gloves).

Eczema and Children

Most kids get itchy rashes at one time or another. But eczema can be a nuisance that may prompt scratching that makes the problem worse.

The term eczema refers to a number of different skin conditions in which the skin is red and irritated and occasionally results in small, fluid-filled bumps that become moist and ooze. The most common cause of eczema is atopic dermatitis, sometimes called infantile eczema although it occurs in infants and older children.

The word “atopic” describes conditions that occur when someone is overly sensitive to allergens in their environment such as pollens, molds, dust, animal dander, and certain foods. “Dermatitis” means that the skin is inflamed, or red and sore.


Kids who get eczema often have family members with hay fever, asthma, or other allergies. Some experts think these kids may be genetically predisposed to get eczema, which means characteristics have been passed on from parents through genes that make a child more likely to get it.

About half of the kids who get eczema will also someday develop hay fever or asthma themselves. Eczema is not an allergy itself, but allergies can trigger eczema. Some environmental factors (such as excessive heat or emotional stress) can also trigger the condition.

About 1 out of every 10 kids develops eczema. Typically, symptoms appear within the first few months of life, and almost always before a child turns 5. But the good news is that more than half of the kids who have eczema today will be over it by the time they’re teenagers.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of eczema can vary widely during the early phases. Between 2 and 6 months of age (and almost always before they’re 5 years old), kids with eczema usually develop itchy, dry, red skin and small bumps on their cheeks, forehead, or scalp. The rash may spread to the extremities (the arms and legs) and the trunk, and red, crusted, or open lesions may appear on any area affected.


They may also experience circular, slightly raised, itchy, and scaly rashes in the bends of the elbows, behind the knees, or on the backs of the wrists and ankles.

As kids get older, the rash is usually less oozy and scalier than it was when the eczema first began, and the skin is extremely itchy and dry. These symptoms also tend to worsen and improve over time, with flare-ups occurring periodically.

Children often try to relieve the itching by rubbing the affected areas with a hand or anything within reach. But scratching can make the rash worse and can eventually lead to thickened, brownish areas on the skin. This is why eczema is often called the “itch that rashes” rather than the “rash that itches.”