Eczema, also known as dermatitis, is a condition where patches of the skin become itchy, dry, red and cracked. There are different types of eczema, but most people use the word when they are referring to atopic eczema.

What is atopic eczema?

The word “atopic” describes a sensitivity to allergens. Atopic eczema is therefore eczema that is brought on or made worse by certain triggers or allergens.

Atopic eczema is a chronic condition, which means it has to be managed and treated on a regular basis. Most people who suffer from it will go through periods where their symptoms are more or less noticeable. When symptoms become more severe this is referred to as a flare-up.

Atopic eczema is most common in young children – in the UK it affects 1 in 5 children. Many people will find that their condition improves significantly as they get older. However it is possible to start experiencing eczema symptoms later in life, even if you didn’t have it as a child.

What are the symptoms of eczema?

Atopic eczema typically affects small areas of the skin on the hands and fingers, insides of the elbows, backs of the knees, face, and scalp – although it can affect any part of the body.

Patches of skin affected by eczema are:

  • Itchy
  • Dry
  • Cracked
  • Sore

The affected skin may also be red in colour.

Because skin affected by eczema is itchy, it can be difficult to resist the temptation to scratch it. Unfortunately, persistent scratching can lead to bleeding and increase the risk of infection. It’s also likely to make the itching worse.

If an area of skin affected by eczema becomes infected you might notice the following symptoms:

  • Fluid coming from the skin
  • Yellow crust on the skin
  • Small yellow spots on the skin
  • Swelling and soreness
  • Having a fever and generally feeling unwell

If you notice these symptoms you should speak to a doctor, as it is likely you will need a prescription for antibiotics to tackle the infection.

What causes eczema?

It isn’t fully understood what causes atopic eczema, although it is thought to be related to your immune system and how your body reacts to certain allergens. You are more likely to develop atopic eczema if you have a family history of it.

Essentially, people with atopic eczema have skin that is very dry, unable to retain moisture, and particularly sensitive to certain substances or environmental conditions. The good news is that it is not infectious, which means you do not risk “catching” it by having close contact with someone who has the condition.

People who live with eczema usually find that their symptoms are set off by certain triggers. These triggers include:

  • Soaps and detergents
  • Cold, dry weather
  • Damp and mould
  • Dust mites, pet fur and pollen
  • Eating foods you are allergic to
  • Certain clothing materials such as wool
  • Having your period or becoming pregnant
  • Skin infections
  • Being unwell
  • Stress

Over time you should be able to get an idea of your eczema triggers. Being able to avoid these triggers, or plan for them so you can use appropriate treatment, will help you prevent and manage serious flare-ups of symptoms.

How is eczema treated?

Treatment for eczema differs depending upon the severity of the condition. Most people use a combination of emollients (moisturisers and soap-free cleansers) and topical corticosteroids, a medicated ointment or cream applied directly to affected areas.

Emollients should be used at least twice a day, even when you’re not experiencing symptoms. You should apply a generous amount of emollient across your skin, smoothing it in the same direction your hair grows. This will keep the skin moisturised without causing irritation, and will help to prevent flare-ups. You should be careful to avoid naked flames or smoking while using emollients as a build up on clothing and bedding may present a fire risk.

Topical corticosteroids, or any other topical treatments prescribed by your doctor, should be applied to affected areas only. You should apply any medicated treatments exactly as directed. Steroid creams should be used sparingly as overuse can cause thinning of the skin.

Other treatments for atopic eczema include:

  • Antihistamines to prevent itching
  • Medicated bandages to prevent scratching and encourage healing
  • Corticosteroid tablets

If your current treatment plan isn’t keeping your symptoms under control, you may require a referral to a dermatologist.

You can make an appointment with Doctor Care Anywhere to speak to someone from our clinical team about your eczema symptoms. If appropriate, we can prescribe eczema treatment. 

Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP