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Understanding eczema

Red eczema on elbows
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Eczema, also known as dermatitis, is a common condition that can cause skin irritation. If you have eczema, you might have many questions.

This article covers:

  • What causes eczema
  • The different types of eczema
  • How to treat eczema
  • Avoiding triggers

What is eczema?

Eczema is a condition that affects the skin, causing it to become dry, red, itchy and scaly. In more extreme cases, skin affected by eczema can crack, bleed and weep.

Eczema is very common, particularly amongst children. In the UK, one in five children and one in 12 adults live with eczema.

In many cases, symptoms improve significantly or disappear entirely with age. However, it can be a condition that you live with long-term.

What causes eczema?

Eczema is not contagious. You can’t catch eczema from someone or pass it on yourself.

In most cases, symptoms of eczema are caused by underlying factors (like a genetic susceptibility to dry skin) or by your skin coming into contact with an irritant or allergen. Or it may be a combination of the two.

How and when symptoms arise will depend upon the type of eczema you have.

Common eczema triggers

As well as making sure you’re using the correct treatments, try to avoid your eczema triggers. These are the allergens and irritants that set off your symptoms.

Common triggers include:

  • Soaps and detergents
  • Stress
  • Perfume, cosmetics and fragranced products
  • Dusty, damp or mouldy conditions
  • Animal fur, hair or saliva
  • Pollen
  • Sweating
  • Central heating
  • Certain weather conditions (e.g., extreme heat or cold)
  • Food allergies (e.g., peanuts, milk, eggs, wheat)
  • Materials contacting the skin (e.g., wool)
  • Hormonal changes (e.g., during a period or pregnancy)
  • Having an infection in the skin

It’s best to try and avoid your triggers altogether. If you know you might be exposed, ensure you have all the treatment you need to deal with an eczema flare-up.

It might be tempting, but try to resist the urge to scratch any skin affected by eczema. Scratching can cause damage, worsen your eczema, and make your skin feel even itchier.

Types of eczema

There are several types of eczema, each with slightly different symptoms.

Eczema type Description Symptoms
Atopic eczema An allergic reaction that’s often associated with conditions like hay fever and asthma Dry, cracked, itchy skin most often on the hands, fingers, elbows, and back of knees
Contact dermatitis A skin reaction to chemicals in the environment. It’s common in people who work with irritating substances Commonly on the hands or other areas that come into contact with an irritating substance
Seborrhoeic dermatitis Inflammation of skin areas containing a large number of glands Often occurs on the scalp, causing dandruff or red, scaly patches. It can also occur in the armpits and groin
Discoid eczema This is not fully understood but often occurs in people who have atopic eczema This type of eczema causes circular patches of dry, red, and scaly skin
Gravitational/varicose eczema This occurs mainly on your legs when you have poor blood flow Dark, scaly patches on your legs which may be associated with varicose veins
Hand eczema One of the most common types of eczema. It mainly affects the palm but can also affect other parts of the hand Itchy rash affecting the palm or occasionally other parts of the hand such as the fingers


Atopic eczema

The most common type of eczema is atopic eczema. This is an allergic condition caused by the immune system overreacting to harmless things in your environment.

People with atopic eczema commonly experience other allergic conditions, such as hay fever and asthma, and often have family members with allergies.

If you have atopic eczema, you’ll typically experience flare-ups of symptoms after coming into contact with specific triggers. Food allergies often cause eczema flare-ups, as are harsh soaps, extreme weather conditions, pollen and animal fur.

Most people with eczema have the atopic version of the condition. The characteristic symptom of atopic eczema is dry and itchy skin that may also be red, sore and cracked.

Eczema can affect large areas of skin, most commonly occurring on the hands and fingers, the insides of the elbows, the backs of the knees, and the face and scalp. You’ll typically have periods where symptoms flare up, followed by periods where symptoms improve.

For some people, natural hormonal changes during pregnancy can worsen their eczema. If you find that this is the case for you, talk to your GP before starting any medication to ensure that it’s safe for you and your baby.

Treating atopic eczema

In most cases, treatment involves using moisturisers, medicated creams and ointments. Our pharmacy team can help with product recommendations. Visit your local store for advice and shop for eczema treatments online.

If you have atopic eczema, your daily treatment will likely involve:

  • Cleaning and moisturising the skin with emollients
  • Applying topical corticosteroids directly to affected areas

Emollients are cleansers and moisturisers that reduce water loss from the skin and help create a protective barrier. Emollients can come as ointments, which contain a lot of oil and are designed for dry skin, or creams and lotions, which are tailored toward less dry skin.

Emollients should be applied across the skin in a large quantity, even when you don’t have eczema symptoms.

What emollients are best for me?

Adding an emollient to your skincare routine can help soothe eczema symptoms. These include creams to be applied to skin when it’s dry, oils that can be used when bathing and washes for showering.

  • E45 emollient wash cream – this moisturises and cleans without changing the pH balance of dry or itchy skin. It also helps dry skin retain its natural moisture.
  • Dermal 600 bath emollient – formulated to manage dry skin conditions. This product is a pharmacy medication. You’ll need to answer a few questions when buying online or in the pharmacy.
  • Aveeno moisturising lotion – soothes and relieves dry and itchy skin, suitable for those prone to eczema.

We recommend a balanced and holistic skincare routine when you have eczema. Using products specially designed for eczema-prone skin can help you manage your condition. When bathing or showering, you’ll wash your skin with products suitable for dry skin and moisturise with specially selected products.

What else can I use to treat eczema?

There are various treatments for eczema. Over time, you’ll figure out which treatments work for you. If you’re having a significant flare-up, you may be prescribed medication to help settle the symptoms.


Topical corticosteroids are medicated creams and ointments that can help to soothe the symptoms of an eczema flare-up. Unlike emollients, they should only be applied to affected areas of skin when you’re experiencing symptoms. The steroids in the cream will help to reduce inflammation and irritation.


Another treatment used by people with eczema is antihistamines. These are usually recommended if you have severe itching due to eczema. These work by limiting the effects of the allergic reaction causing the flare-up.

How to avoid your eczema triggers

Get a good night’s sleep

You might find the urge to itch is heightened at night, and getting to sleep can be difficult. Being hot at night can also irritate skin and increase the impulse to itch.

You could try:

  • Keeping windows open
  • Turning the heating down or off
  • Using a light duvet or sheet
  • Cotton bedding (cotton can be gentler on the skin than synthetic materials)
  • Having a bath before bedtime

Wear skin-friendly fabrics

When choosing what to wear, you can consider a few things to help manage your eczema flare-ups.

For example:

  • Stay away from wool and synthetic fabrics (e.g., polyester) if they irritate your skin
  • Choose cotton clothing to limit irritation
  • Avoid tight clothes, which can cause sweating and irritation
  • Wash new clothes before you wear them
  • Use unscented, sensitive or mild liquid detergents
  • Avoid perfumed fabric conditioners

Keep a food diary

A food allergy or intolerance can cause eczema symptoms in some people. Dairy and wheat products are some of the more common food allergens. Try keeping a food diary so you can work out if your diet is affecting your eczema.

If you’ve noticed flare-ups with certain foods, you should see a dermatologist for advice before cutting things out of your diet.

‘Free from’ foods are much more widely available these days, and experimenting with new recipes can be fun.

Minimise stress

Stress can cause eczema to get worse, so managing this can help you reduce flare-ups.

Ways you can reduce stress include:

  • Make sure you get enough sleep
  • Talk to other people with eczema for support
  • Breathing exercises, yoga and meditation for relaxation
  • Physical activity to help minimise stress

Manage your environment

Eczema reacts badly to rapid changes in temperature, as well as extreme hot or cold temperatures. High humidity can lead to symptoms like prickly heat, while low humidity may dry the skin.

In winter, central heating can also be a trigger. The best thing you can do is make sure your home is as comfortable as possible by controlling the heating. Keep it low and wear light cotton sleepwear.

When outside in cold weather, choose leather or cotton gloves to protect your hands from the cold air. Remember, wool gloves may cause irritation.

Stay moisturised

Keeping your skin moisturised can help manage your eczema. Moisturise with a plain, unscented moisturiser after showering or bathing to keep your skin soft and protected.

If this doesn’t work, try thicker products such as emollients. The difference between regular lotions, creams and emollients is the amount of oil they contain.

Emollients prevent water loss and provide a protective layer on your skin, but often can be greasy as they contain a lot of oil. They come in different forms and can be used directly on your skin, in the bath or as soap. You may have to try a few emollients to find one that’s right for you.

Three tips to help soothe eczema

A final note on understanding eczema

Many different skin conditions can cause itching and redness. If you have one of the different types of eczema, you might need to try various treatments, creams and lotions to find ones that work for you. Look after your skin when you’re out and about to avoid a flare-up.

If you’d like to learn more, explore our blog for more articles about skin conditions that can cause itching and how eczema can be treated.