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.
What Is 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.
Why Do Kids Get Eczema?
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:
- soaps, detergents, or perfumes
- hot and sweaty skin
- dry winter air with little moisture
- other things that can irritate your skin, such as contact with scratchy fabrics (like wool) or dust mites in your bedsheets
How Do I Know If I Have Eczema?
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.
A Happy Ending Without Eczema
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:
- Don't scratch the itch! This might seem impossible, but do your best not to. When you scratch, it makes your skin sore and sometimes more itchy. The skin can even break open, bleed, and become infected with bacteria. If you have a super-itchy spot, wet a washcloth with cool water and apply it to the skin.
- Keep your fingernails cut short. You're less likely to break your skin open if you scratch an itch.
- Take short baths or showers with warm water. Hot water can make you itch more. Have your mom or dad ask your doctor if it's OK for you to use oatmeal soaking products in your bath to help control the itching. Avoid soaps that are scented and use ones that have moisturizer in them.
- When you're done in the tub or shower, don't rub your skin dry with a rough towel. That just irritates your skin more. Gently pat it dry to get the water off. Then put on some moisturizing cream or lotion to keep your skin from getting too dry. You can use the moisturizer several times a day.
- Drink water, which adds moisture to your skin.
- Wear loose clothing to help your skin feel better. Make sure you wear cotton or other soft, natural fibers. Wool and some synthetic cloth can make you feel itchy all over.
- Talk to your doctor about what seems to be causing your flare-ups and try to avoid your triggers.
- Chill out! You may find that your eczema gets worse when you're stressed. Find ways to deal with things that bother you, such as talking things out with your parents, a teacher, or a good friend.
Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: May 2012