Your skin is red and sore. It may even look scaly. You itch like crazy. You know you haven't been near poison ivy and you don't have chickenpox, but you're starting to worry that you're slowly turning into some kind of scaly creature from a monster movie. No need to worry. It's just eczema.
Eczema (say: ek-zeh-ma) is also called atopic dermatitis (say: ay-tah-pik der-muh-tie-tis). Atopic refers to someone who is likely to develop an allergy to something. Dermatitis means that the skin is inflamed, or red and sore.
Eczema makes your skin dry, red, and itchy. Sometimes you may even break out in a rash. It's a chronic (say: krah-nik) condition, which means that it comes and goes.
If you have eczema, you're not alone. About 1 out of every 10 kids develops eczema. Most kids who have eczema got it before they turned 5 years old, but you can get it when you're older than 5. The good news is that more than half of the kids who have eczema today will be over it by the time they are teenagers.
Skin has special cells that react when they come in contact with anything that irritates them. They make the skin inflamed to protect it. If you have eczema, you have more of these special cells than other people do. These cells overreact when something triggers them and they start to work overtime. That's what makes your skin red, sore, and itchy.
No one is really sure why people get eczema. It's not contagious — which means that no one can catch it from you and you can't catch it from anyone else. Kids who get eczema often have family members with hay fever (it makes them sneeze and have a runny nose), asthma (trouble breathing), or other allergic conditions. Some scientists think these kids may be genetically predisposed to get eczema, which means characteristics have been passed on from parents through genes that make a kid 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 be a trigger factor for eczema. That means that if you have allergies, your eczema may flare up sometimes.
Some things that can set off eczema include:
If you have a rash, don't panic! Most rashes go away. But if you have eczema, the rash may go away at first — and then it comes back again and again.
Not all rashes itch. But eczema is itchy, itchy, itchy! It often starts in the folds inside your elbows and on the back of your knees. It can also appear on your face and other parts of your body. Many things besides eczema can cause a rash. That's why your doctor is the best person to see to figure out what's causing your rash.
You may need some moisturizing lotion or cream to control the dryness and itchiness. Some people need stronger medicines called corticosteroids. Steroid ointment or cream is rubbed on your skin to help calm the inflammation. Your doctor might suggest you try an antihistamine, a medicine that comes in pill or liquid form, to help control the itching. And if all that scratching leads to an infection, you may need an antibiotic. None of these eczema medicines will cure you forever, but they can help make your skin more comfortable and less red.
Here are some other important steps to take:
Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: May 2012
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