Symptoms and Causes Of Eczema: Your Complete Guide

Eczema flare-up on inner elbow.
  • Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that can be caused by an overactive immune system, genetics, and environmental factors.

  • There are several types of eczema, each with its own symptoms. The most common type of eczema is called atopic dermatitis.

  • Typical triggers of eczema flare-ups include certain foods, exposure to harsh soaps or chemicals, and climate changes.

  • There are a variety of treatment options for eczema. The most important aspect of any treatment plan is that it is tailored to your specific type of eczema and your triggers.

If you suspect you have eczema, you may be wondering what causes this skin disease and what you can do about it.

The symptoms of eczema can be uncomfortable and unpleasant, especially if you have very itchy patches of skin. The condition may get in the way of a good night’s rest and can interfere with your daily life.

The dry and scaly patches associated with eczema can also make you feel insecure or self-conscious if they are visible to others.

It’s important to know that if you are experiencing eczema, you are not alone. According to the National Eczema Association (NEA), this skin condition is quite common. One in every 10 people will develop eczema in their lifetime.

In this article, we'll discuss the various causes of eczema, the symptoms associated with this skin condition, and the reasons you might be having flare-ups.

What is Eczema?

Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that weakens the skin’s barrier, which is meant to help your body retain moisture and protect it from environmental factors.

This health problem may occur during childhood, adolescence, or adulthood, and the symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Understanding Eczema Symptoms

Although each type of eczema looks different, these are the most common symptoms you can expect:

Rough and scaly patches on the skin

The most common symptoms of eczema include:

  • Very dry skin

  • Scaly skin

  • Itchy skin

  • Thickened skin

This usually occurs in patches rather than all over the body. These patches may often appear flaky, rough, or scaly. Swollen skin

People with eczema often experience inflamed or swollen skin. It can become even more inflamed if the skin is scratched due to persistent itching.

Usually, eczema symptoms include red and irritated skin on certain parts of the body.

Skin color changes

People with darker skin tones often report that their skin changes color in areas that are inflamed with eczema. They may experience either a darkening or lightening of the skin tone in affected areas.

In lighter skin tones, color changes may include brown, purple, or grey patches.

A rash or hives

Eczema can often result in an itchy rash or the development of hives on the skin. This is particularly common in atopic dermatitis.

A rash on the neck and chest.

Small bumps

One of the most common atopic dermatitis symptoms is little bumps that form on the skin. These appear mainly on the upper arms and the thighs.

Oozing or crusting

The dry and scaly patches on the skin might become crusty or ooze fluid, particularly if they are scratched open due to constant itching. Oozing or weeping eczema is serious as it can cause the skin to become infected.

Sensitive skin

As a result of scratching and itchiness, people with eczema often experience raw and sensitive skin.

Key Point: Is Eczema Contagious?

Eczema isn’t a contagious condition, which means it can’t be passed from one person to the next, even if you touch someone else’s eczema.

This is because eczema is not a bacterial or viral condition, so you can’t ‘catch’ it.

People develop eczema due to their genetics, the way their immune system operates, or because of environmental factors — not because they received it from someone else.

What are the Different Types of Eczema?

There are several different types of eczema, each with a unique appearance.

Atopic dermatitis

Often called atopic eczema, this is the most common type of eczema that people get.

It occurs when the skin barrier becomes dry and itchy. In this type of eczema, symptoms also include a rash or small raised bumps on the skin.

The itching and dry skin associated with atopic dermatitis can cause several other health issues, including poor sleep as a result of discomfort.

People with atopic dermatitis can develop eczema anywhere on the body, and severe rashes can form.

Atopic dermatitis on hands and feet.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when the skin touches something that irritates it.

It differs from other forms of eczema in that it is usually an allergic reaction to some form of trigger like harsh soaps, fragrances, and detergents. This is why it’s often referred to as allergic contact dermatitis.

Dyshidrotic eczema

Usually characterized by small blisters, dyshidrotic eczema mainly affects the:

  • Edges of the fingers and toes

  • Hands

  • Feet

However, this type of eczema can also affect other parts of the body. Dyshidrotic eczema is believed to affect more women than men.

Seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is eczema that occurs mainly on the scalp. It can present as constant itching or a rash in the affected area. In babies, this condition is called cradle cap.

Nummular eczema

Sometimes referred to as discoid eczema, this typically looks like circular patches on the skin. Often, these patches can ooze, be very dry, and feel quite sensitive.

Stasis dermatitis

This type of eczema typically results from poor circulation in the legs, meaning that symptoms occur mostly in the leg area.

This can include swelling, aching, or heaviness of the legs. It may also result in leg pain that worsens when standing or walking.

Stasis dermatitis is also known as:

  • Gravitational dermatitis

  • Venous eczema

  • Venous stasis dermatitis


Neurodermatitis is often one of the most obvious forms of eczema as it usually appears in the folds of the skin — such as the crook of the elbow or between the fingers.

It looks similar to scales, especially if the person has experienced excessive itching. The most common places for this type of eczema to occur are the:

  • Feet

  • Ankles

  • Hands

  • Wrists

  • Elbows

  • Shoulders

  • Neck

What are the Risk Factors for Eczema?

Some people are more at risk of developing eczema than others. You have a higher chance of experiencing eczema by being:

  • Born to a mother who is older than the typical childbearing years

  • Born by cesarean section

  • Exposed to secondhand smoke

  • Overweight

  • Born with a high birth weight

  • Treated with antibiotics during infancy

  • Exposed to hard water during infancy

  • Located in a city or a cold climate

What Causes Eczema?

There is no single cause of eczema. It is believed to be caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors.

Here are some of the common causes of eczema.

An overactive immune system

Many people who experience eczema have an immune system that is extremely sensitive to allergens and irritants.

The immune system overreacts to these triggers and assumes they are foreign invaders like bacteria or viruses.

These irritants trigger the immune system to cause inflammation, which results in eczema on the skin.

Environmental factors

We will explain how certain environmental factors can make eczema symptoms worse, but these factors can also cause the onset of eczema in the first place.

Such environmental factors include the climate, and exposure to smoke, pollutants, and humidity.


If you have a family history of eczema or other skin diseases, it’s more likely that you’ll develop this condition.

If there is a history of asthma and hay fever in your family, it’s possible that you may experience eczema.

Your genetics could also cause your skin barrier to not function as it should, making you predisposed to eczema.

Key Point: A Filaggrin Deficiency

Filaggrin is a protein in the body that works to maintain the condition of your skin. A filaggrin deficiency — which is typically genetic — can lead to dry, itchy, and inflamed skin, which could result in eczema.

What Can Trigger Eczema Flare-Ups?

Many individuals with this skin condition report something called eczema flare-ups. This is when their eczema is triggered by something and becomes worse than before.

There are several things that can trigger an eczema flare-up, many of them being environmental factors.

Key Point: Why You Should Know Your Eczema Triggers

Identifying what triggers your flare-ups is a key part of any eczema treatment plan. This helps you know what to avoid to prevent adverse reactions.

This information is also particularly helpful to your doctor as they can prescribe treatments that prevent these triggers from causing or worsening flare-ups.

Food allergies

People who are allergic to high-allergen food such as cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, soya, or gluten may experience an eczema flare-up if they consume these products.

The body’s allergic reaction to these foods can trigger the immune system to overreact and result in eczema.

Soaps and detergents

When your skin comes into contact with harsh soaps, chemicals, or cleaning detergents, your eczema may flare up.

Other substances that may trigger an eczema flare-up include bubble bath liquids, perfumes, cosmetics, and skin products.

The ingredients in these products often strip the skin of its natural oils, which can make it tight and itchy. This can lead to an eczema flare-up.

Pollen and pet dander

Another factor that can cause irritation to the skin is pollen and pet dander. The immune system may consider these things foreign invaders and trigger your eczema.

People with eczema already have very sensitive, fragile skin, and being exposed to allergens like pollen and pet dander can cause flare-ups.

A chocolate lab and a orange cat snuggling.

Dust mites

The mites found in dust or sand may irritate the skin, causing inflammation and itching. The protein found in the droppings of dust mites can be an irritant that the immune system reacts to.


The weather may impact the condition of your skin and can trigger eczema flare-ups. High or low humidity, in particular, changes the skin and might cause irritation.

During the colder months when humidity decreases, there is less moisture in the air which can lead to dry skin. Having very dry skin can trigger an eczema flare-up.

Stress and anxiety

The connection between eczema and stress is not completely understood. However, some individuals with eczema find that their symptoms worsen during periods of stress or anxiety.

The challenging part of this condition is that simply having a flare-up could cause stress and anxiety — especially because eczema is such a visible condition. And this stress could make your eczema symptoms worse.

How Can I Treat Eczema?

There are a variety of eczema treatments available. However, the best approach is one that is tailored to your type of eczema and your specific triggers.

Eczema can’t be cured, but some treatments may help manage symptoms and relieve itching.

Some common treatments include:

  • Prescription topical medications such as corticosteroids

  • Oral medications

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) remedies

  • Light therapy

  • Immunosuppressants

  • Medicated shampoos for seborrheic dermatitis

When Should I Seek Medical Treatment for Eczema?

If your eczema turns into open wounds from scratching or crusting, you’re more prone to skin infections that could be dangerous. This is why seeking treatment is important if you suspect you have eczema.

A skin infection can look like red streaks, yellow scabs, and pus oozing from the affected areas.

It’s especially important to see a healthcare professional if the pain and discomfort cause sleeping difficulties or disrupt your daily activities.

If the treatments you have previously been prescribed are no longer working, it’s best to see your doctor again for a revised treatment plan.

If your eczema is affecting sensitive areas such as your eyes, genitals, and face, seeing a doctor is crucial.

Where Can I Learn More About Eczema?

Through LifeMD, you can consult a board-certified physician or nurse practitioner to discuss your eczema concerns.

A licensed healthcare professional can prescribe a treatment plan tailored to your specific circumstances and provide follow-up consultations to ensure the treatments are working.

Go to LifeMD to make your online appointment and get relief from your eczema.

Dr. Anthony Puopolo

Dr. Puopolo holds a B.A. in Biology from Tufts University, M.A. in Biology from Boston University, and Doctor of Medicine from the Boston University School of Medicine. He also completed a Family Medicine and Psychiatry residency program in the U.S. Army.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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