Eczema: What causes it, the symptoms and how to treat it

A dermatologist explains everything you need to know about eczema.

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
4 min read

Eczema affects about one in 10 people in the United States.

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About one in 10 Americans will get eczema at some point in their lives, and about 31.6 million Americans are currently suffering from it. Eczema is common, yet no matter how long you've had it, dealing with eczema is never a walk in the park. Not only is it physically uncomfortable or even painful, it's emotionally distressing since often the symptoms can affect your appearance, and it can feel impossible to find relief. 

If you suffer from eczema (like I do), you know how it feels to go through an outbreak and find little to no solutions for the symptoms, and once they do resolve (if they do for a bit) you live in fear of your next outbreak. My last major flare was around the holidays when my entire face broke out in red, itchy, patches that extended down the sides of my neck. Not only did it feel terrible, it pretty much ruined my holiday since I felt so distressed about the rash during a time when I wanted to celebrate. 

Although we don't yet know what exactly causes eczema, and there's no cure -- we know a lot about how to manage it, treat the symptoms, and help identify triggers to help prevent future flares. Keep reading below for more insight from a dermatologist about what you need to know about eczema, the symptoms and current treatments.

What is eczema and what causes it?

"Eczema is a common itchy rash that occurs on the skin. Eczema can appear anywhere on the body, however it typically occurs most commonly in skin folds on the extremities," says Dr. Jared Jagdeo, board-certified dermatologist and chief medical officer at Ever/Body

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, there are seven different types of eczema, and you can have several different kinds at once.

The seven different types of eczema:


Eczema can affect different areas of your body including your arms, hands, neck or face.

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Eczema symptoms

Since eczema technically represents a group of different skin rashes, the symptoms can vary with each different type of rash and for each individual person. But according to Mayo Clinic, in general the symptoms include:

  • Dry skin
  • Itchy skin (which can be severe)
  • Red or brown/gray colored patches
  • Small red bumps on skin
  • Thick, cracked or scaly skin
  • Skin that is raw and sensitive from frequent itching or scratching 

People with eczema sometimes experience flares (i.e. it comes and goes), and some people have it chronically. 

What causes eczema?

In general, we don't know the exact cause of eczema yet. But it is thought to be associated with the immune system, genetics and also environmental factors. According to the National Eczema Association, most eczema cases can be explained by "a combination of genes and environmental triggers."

According to Jagdeo, things like changing seasons or exposure to irritants can also trigger symptoms. "Eczema can worsen with the change in seasons and [with] skin irritants such as fragrances," says Jagdeo.

Common eczema triggers, according to the National Eczema Foundation:

  • Dry skin
  • Stress
  • Sweat
  • Hormones
  • Changes in climate or weather patterns
  • Certain foods or beverages
  • Chemicals or irritants from household products
  • Allergens like pet dander, dust mites, mold, pollen 

How eczema is treated

There is currently no cure for eczema, but the symptoms can be treated or managed in a variety of ways. One way to help prevent and treat flares is by trying to identify your triggers, which you can discuss with your doctor -- ideally a board-certified dermatologist who can help you identify triggers and proper treatment for your eczema. 

Use gentle skin care products and eliminate potential irritants

"[Use] gentle skin care with emollients and avoid skin irritants such as fragrance-containing products," says Jagdeo.

Topical products 

Doctors can also prescribe you products to treat eczema that you apply directly to the skin. Typically these are "topical medications known as anti-inflammatory steroids to soothe the skin," according to Jagdeo.

Immune modifying treatments

"Immune modifying treatments such as oral or injectable medications [can] help improve the skin by decreasing the immune mediated inflammation that causes eczema," adds Jagdeo. 

What about OTC products?

Over-the-counter creams and products that are marketed for eczema can sometimes help, but you should always see a dermatologist first to help determine the correct treatment and products for your specific situation. "Board certified dermatologists are experts in eczema and skin care and can help recommend OTC treatments to improve your eczema, along with prescription based recommendations as medically necessary," says Jagdeo.

OTC treatments Dr. Jagdeo recommends:

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.