Last Edited: April 10th, 2012

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Eczema is a term used to describe a non-contagious skin inflammation that causes itching, redness and irritation. The body’s immune system overreacts to certain irritants. Eczema affects 10 to 20 percent of infants and three percent of adults. About half the infants affected outgrow eczema by the age of three, while others experience symptoms throughout their lives.


The exact cause of eczema is unknown. It is thought to be hereditary because it usually occurs within families that have a history of eczema, allergies or asthma. It can be triggered by substances that come in contact with the skin, such as soap, detergent and cosmetics, or by environmental allergens such as pollen and mold. Eczema can also be caused by psychological stress or by changes in temperature or humidity.


Regardless of the cause, the symptoms of eczema are indicated by a red, itchy rash. The first sign of eczema is usually itchy skin, followed by a rash that can occur on the face, hands, wrists, behind the knees and feet. This rash is extremely dry, thickened and scaly. The face and scalp of infants can be affected by a crusty, itchy rash that can ooze.


The three most common types of eczema are thought to be hereditary and are aggravated by allergens or environmental factors. They are categorized by their cause and where they occur on the body.

Atopic dermatitis is the most common type of eczema. It tends to run in families, especially when there are members with a history of allergies or asthma. Atopic dermatitis reappears with exposure to environmental irritants, such as mold and pollen, or allergens, such as soaps, detergents and perfume.

Contact eczema is characterized by itching, burning and redness that are caused by the skin’s contact with chemicals or other irritants. Examples of these irritants include laundry detergent, fabrics, cosmetics and the nickel present in jewelry. It is often difficult to determine the exact cause of contact eczema because of the large number of triggers associated with it.

The cause of seborrheic eczema is unknown. It is characterized by yellow and scaly patches on the scalp and face. Examples of seborrheic eczema are cradle cap in infants and dandruff. There is no itching, and it often occurs in the nasal folds and cheek creases. The condition can be brought on by infrequent shampooing, emotional stress and oily skin.


Although there is no cure for eczema, there are many treatments that relieve the itching and irritation. For mild cases, non-prescription one percent hydrocortisone cream and antihistamines are effective remedies. Doctors can prescribe corticosteroids to reduce inflammation or antibiotics to kill bacteria if an infection develops. Protopic and Elidel are topical skin creams that alter the immune system’s response to prevent eczema outbreaks. However, the FDA warns that these prescription drugs should be used with caution because of possible cancer risks associated with their use.