Eczema and dermatitis

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What are eczema and dermatitis?

‘Eczema’ and ‘dermatitis’ are often used interchangeably by GPs and pharmacists to describe a group of common inflammatory skin conditions – for simplicity we’ll use the term ‘eczema’ to describe this condition. If you have eczema, areas of your skin can become dry, red, rough and blistered. This can result in itching, bleeding and sometimes infection.

You can develop eczema at any age. It affects about one in five children and about one in twelve adults in the UK. Eczema isn’t contagious, so you can’t catch it from someone else or pass it on to others if you have it.

There are lots of different types of eczema – here are the most common ones.

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What causes eczema?

It isn’t known exactly what causes eczema. In many cases, there’s a genetic cause: this means there’s a tendency for eczema to run in your family and you’re naturally more likely to develop the condition.

Eczema can also be made worse by irritants like soaps and detergents, or environmental allergens like heat, dust, wool or pets, or even the weather. These irritants don’t necessarily cause eczema, but can aggravate your skin and make it feel worse.

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How is it different to healthy skin?

Healthy skin is like a cobbled path – the stones (skin cells) are held together snugly, with natural oils (lipids) filling the gaps between the cells. This forms the skin’s natural protection barrier, keeping moisture in and irritants out.

When you have eczema, the lipid layer in your skin can become defective and less able to attract and retain enough moisture. This weakens the skin’s natural protection barrier, which means even more moisture is lost, so your skin gets very dry.

This weakens the skin’s protective barrier, further allowing irritants to get in, making the skin even more irritated, so it may appear red, inflamed or itchy. It's important to try not to scratch your skin as this could cause more damage. 

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What are the signs and symptoms of eczema?

If you have eczema, your skin might be dry, red and itchy. Eczema can affect any part of your body, and sometimes it can affect your whole body. Scratching can damage your skin and it won’t stop the itch, in fact the more you scratch, the more your skin will be triggered to itch. If you keep scratching, your skin can become more damaged and continue to itch: this is called the itch-scratch cycle.

You might also notice your skin changes over time, and at times your eczema gets worse and flares up. If this happens, your skin can become very red, weepy and itchy. But there are many things you can do to help manage your symptoms, and a good skincare routine can help keep them at bay.

E45 skin school: main types of eczema and dermatitis

E45 skin school: main types of eczema and dermatitis

  • Atopic eczema or atopic dermatitis cause areas of the skin to become dry, itchy, cracked, sore and red and can develop all over the body
  • Contact eczema or contact dermatitis is more localised. There might be redness and an itching and burning sensation where the skin has come into contact with an allergen or an irritant
  • Seborrhoeic eczema isn’t necessarily itchy – it can be characterised by scaly patches on the skin, usually on the scalp and face

Speak to your doctor if you think you might have eczema or dermatitis or if you have any other concerns about your skin.

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How can you treat eczema?

Eczema is a skin condition which unfortunately has no known cure, but many people learn to manage it through a balance of professional help and treatment, with regular emollient use. A good, consistent skincare routine can help improve your skin and keep your symptoms under control.

Actively moisturising your skin will help retain more moisture and protect its natural barrier by:

  1. Replenishing your skin’s natural oils (lipids) that can trap water in between your skin cells and prevent it from getting out
  2. Supporting the role of natural moisturising factor (NMF) by enhancing the skin’s ability to attract and hold onto water
  3. Maintaining your skin’s naturally acidic pH that can affect the function of its protective barrier

When you’re treating eczema, it’s important to use the appropriate emollient for you as part of a personalised skincare routine. Your routine also needs to be something you can manage as easily as possible around other aspects of your life. The more it fits in with what you’re doing, the more you can keep it up and keep your skin healthy.

Find out more about emollients and using soap substitutes to help control eczema here.

If your skin flares up, a doctor or pharmacist might recommend you use a topical steroid cream – but you should only use them if you’ve been advised to do so by a healthcare professional. You can find out more about them here

Raheem's story

“I wanted something that was non-greasy… not too oily. I don’t have to apply emollient too often… just morning and night.
Every time you feel the urge to itch… use an emollient… reach for that instead of scratching your skin.”

Raheem has had eczema since he was a child