What is Eczema?

Overview  |  Symptoms  |  Causes  |  Diagnosis  |  Treatment

Eczema also referred to as atopic eczema and atopic dermatitis, is a condition which causes the skin to become inflamed, leading to redness, itchiness, dryness and cracked skin. Eczema tends to begin in early childhood and, in some cases, continues into adulthood. Although most people are only mildly affected by eczema, the condition can also be severe.

Symptoms of Eczema

While symptoms of eczema may always be present, from time to time symptoms can get worse, which is referred to as a flare-up. During a flare-up – which can last several weeks – symptoms may need extra treatment. Adults are usually affected by eczema on their arms, elbows, hands, legs and back of knees.

Typical symptoms of eczema can include:

  • red inflamed skin, which can be itchy
  • blistering
  • dryness in the affected areas
  • broken or cracked skin
  • thickening of the skin

What Causes Eczema?

The  cause of eczema is unknown, however, it is believed that there are several factors that play a  role. Studies have shown that the chances of  a child developing eczema, and other atopic conditions – asthma and hay fever,  are more likely if a parent has the condition, which suggests that there is a genetic link between the two.

The number of people affected by eczema has increased in recent years, which is said to be due to changes in the environment, such as pollution, pollen, dust mite allergies and climate change. If you have a genetic predisposition to eczema, then exposure to certain elements may cause eczema to develop. There are also factors in early life that could lead to eczema.

How is Eczema Diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose eczema based on an examination of the affected areas and your symptoms; they may also ask you a series of questions about the symptoms. If your doctor suspects your eczema may be infected, then they may conduct a swab test and send it out for testing.

Treating Eczema

Currently, there is no cure for eczema, therefore the aim of treatment is to manage and ease symptoms. Typically, your doctor will recommend an emollient and/or corticosteroids – both topical treatments. Some people find keeping a journal with symptoms and triggers is useful, as finding a link between the two can sometimes be effective in preventing a flare-up.


Emollients, or moisturizers as they are more commonly known as, work by forming a film on the skin’s surface, preventing water loss, which keeps the skin hydrated.  Emollients are the primary treatment for eczema because they are effective at preventing dryness associated with eczema, which can ease itching and reduce flare-ups. Emollients come in the form of creams, lotions, ointments that all contain varying degrees of moisture, which is ideal as you may need them for different uses.

Topical Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are steroids  – not to be confused with anabolic steroids used by some athletes –  that reduce inflammation. It comes in cream, lotion and ointment form and is applied to the affected areas when they become inflamed. Corticosteroids come in different strengths, from mild to potent and are really useful during a flare-up.