Eczema is the name for a group of skin conditions that cause dry, irritated skin.

It is sometimes called dermatitis or atopic eczema.

Eczema causes areas of skin to become itchy, dry, cracked, sore and red.

There are usually periods where the symptoms improve. This is followed by periods where they get worse (flare-ups). Flare-ups may occur as often as 2 or 3 times a month.

Eczema can happen all over the body. It's more common on the hands (especially fingers), the insides of the elbows or backs of the knees. It also occurs on the face and scalp in children.

The severity of eczema can vary a lot from person to person.

People with mild eczema may only have small areas of dry skin that are itchy every now and again.

In more severe cases, eczema can cause widespread red, inflamed skin all over the body. It also causes constant itching.

Scratching can disrupt your sleep, make your skin bleed, and cause secondary infections. It can also make itching worse.

A cycle of itching and regular scratching may develop. This can lead to sleepless nights and difficulty concentrating.

Part of skin affected by eczema may also turn darker or lighter. This can happen after the condition has improved. This is more noticeable in people with darker skin.

It's not a result of scarring or a side effect of steroid creams. It can be more of a "footprint" of old inflammation and eventually returns to its normal colour.

Areas of skin affected by eczema can become infected. Signs of an infection can include:

  • your eczema getting a lot worse

  • fluid oozing from the skin

  • a yellow crust on the skin surface or small yellowish-white spots appearing in the eczema

  • the skin becoming swollen and sore

  • a high temperature (fever) and generally feeling unwell

See your GP as soon as possible if you think your or your child's skin may have become infected.

Eczema is likely to be caused by a combination of things.

People with eczema often have very dry skin. This is because their skin is unable to hold on to moisture.

This dryness may make the skin more likely to react to certain triggers, causing it to become red and itchy.

You may be born with a higher chance of developing eczema. This could be because of the genes you inherit from your parents.

If either of your parents or siblings had eczema, you are more likely to develop it.

Eczema isn't infectious, so it can't be passed on through close contact.

There are a number of things that may trigger your eczema symptoms. These can vary from person to person.

Common triggers include:

  • irritants – such as soaps and detergents, including shampoo, washing up liquid and bubble bath

  • environmental factors or allergens – such as cold and dry weather and dampness. More specific things such as house dust mites, pet fur, pollen and moulds may also be a trigger

  • food allergies – such as allergies to cows' milk, eggs, peanuts, soya or wheat

  • certain materials worn next to the skin – such as wool and synthetic fabrics

  • hormonal changes – women may find their symptoms get worse in the days before their period or during pregnancy
    skin infections

Some people also say their symptoms get worse when the air is dry or dusty. Symptoms may also get worse when people are stressed, sweaty, or too hot or too cold.

If you're diagnosed with eczema, your GP will help you to try to identify any trigger the eczema flare-ups. Although it may get better or worse for no obvious reason.

Once you know your triggers, you can try to avoid them.

For example:

  • if certain fabrics irritate your skin, avoid wearing these. Stick to soft, fine-weave clothing or natural materials such as cotton

  • if heat aggravates your eczema, keep the rooms in your home cool, especially the bedroom

  • avoid using soaps or detergents that may affect your skin. Use soap substitutes instead

Some people with eczema are allergic to house dust mites. Trying to rid your home of them isn't recommended. It can be difficult and there's no clear evidence that it helps.

There is no diagnostic test for eczema. Your GP will be able to tell just by looking at your skin if you have eczema.

There are things you can do yourself to help ease your symptoms and prevent further problems.

Try to reduce the damage from scratching

Eczema (atopic eczema) is often itchy, and it can be very tempting to scratch the affected areas of skin. But scratching usually damages the skin, which can itself cause more eczema to occur. The skin thickens into leathery areas as a result of chronic scratching.

Deep scratching also causes bleeding. This increases the risk of your skin becoming infected or scarred.

Try to reduce scratching whenever possible. You could try rubbing your skin with your fingers instead.

If your baby has eczema, anti-scratch mittens may stop them scratching their skin.

Keep your nails short and clean. This will minimise damage to the skin from unintentional scratching.

Keep your skin covered with light clothing to reduce damage from habitual scratching.

Dietary changes

Some foods, such as eggs and cows' milk, can trigger eczema symptoms. But you shouldn't make significant changes to your diet without first speaking to your GP.

It may not be healthy to cut these foods from your diet. Young children especially need the calcium, calories and protein from these foods.

If your GP suspects a food allergy, they may refer you to a dietitian (a specialist in diet and nutrition). They can help to work out a way to avoid the food you're allergic. They'll also make sure you get all the nutrition you need.

Your GP may refer you to a hospital specialist. This could be an immunologist, dermatologist or paediatrician.

If you're breastfeeding a baby with eczema, get medical advice before making any changes to your regular diet.

Useful links 

Irish Skin Foundation