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What is eczema?

Eczema is a rash or series of rashes that often presents as red, itchy skin. Though the exact cause of eczema is unclear, research has shown that eczema can be triggered by both environmental and genetic factors.

“Eczema affects people for different reasons,” says Dave Harvey, M.D., a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Piedmont. “We know that a person’s immune system function is an important factor in eczema development. People with asthma or severe allergies may be prone to eczema because of immune dysregulation [their immune system isn’t functioning properly].  Genetic abnormalities in the skin protein fillagrin have also been shown to play a role in this disease.”

Eczema triggers

Eczema can be triggered by:

  • Allergies: People who are allergic to dust mites, fragrances, formaldehyde, nickel and poison ivy can develop eczema.
  • Cold weather: Cold weather leads to moisture depletion in the skin, which can lead to xerotic eczema (dry-skin eczema) or “winter’s itch.”
  • Infections: Infections due to bacteria, fungi and viruses can be sources for the development of eczema.
  • Stress: Stress and tension can make trigger an eczema flare-up.  
  • Overheating: Exercise, wearing too many closes or moving too quickly from hot temperatures to cold can all trigger eczema. 
  • Food allergies: Food allergies can trigger eczema flare-ups, especially when people start to scratch. This often starts a dysfunctional “itch-scratch” cycle, which is important to interrupt in order to calm skin redness and inflammation.

Tips to avoid an eczema flare-up

There is no cure for eczema, but there are several ways to alleviate symptoms and prevent flare-ups. Dr. Harvey recommends the following tips:

  1. Clean your skin. “Cleaning is an essential part of caring for your skin,” Dr. Harvey says. “The key is to treat your skin gently. Take at least one bath or shower a day and avoid scrubbing your skin with a washcloth or loofah." 
  2. Use lukewarm water and limit bath or shower time. Prolonged hot water or long showers and baths strip essential oils from your skin. Limit your bath or shower time to about 10 minutes or less.
  3. Avoid strong or fragranced soaps. “These are the most capable of stripping oils from your skin and can leave your skin dry and irritated,” Dr. Harvey says.  "Use a gentle cleanser like Aveeno or Cetaphil.”
  4. Avoid hot tubs and use blow dryers conservatively. Since overheating is a risk factor for eczema, anything you can do to stay cool may help minimize symptoms. 
  5. Moisturize with fragrance-free products after a bath or shower. Pat the skin to damp and then apply moisturizer.
  6. When shaving, wet the skin first and apply a fragrance-free shaving gel. Wait for 30 seconds before you begin shaving, then shave in the direction of the hair growth, not against it.

If these tips don’t alleviate symptoms, it is best to schedule an appointment with your doctor.

“It is wise to see your physician when the itching and rash are getting out of hand,” Dr. Harvey says. “If your skin is bleeding, has blisters, or if you are experiencing foul smelling drainage from the rash then medical intervention is important to reverse the process.”

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