People with atopic eczema often have very dry skin because their skin is unable to retain much moisture. This dryness may make the skin more likely to react to certain triggers, causing it to become itchy and sore.
You may be born with an increased likelihood of developing atopic eczema because of the genes you inherit from your parents.
Research has shown children who have 1 or both parents with atopic eczema, or who have other siblings with eczema, are more likely to develop it themselves.
Atopic eczema is not infectious, so it cannot be passed on through close contact.
There are a number of things that may trigger your eczema symptoms. These can vary from person to person.
Common triggers include:
- irritants – such as soaps and detergents, including shampoo, washing-up liquid, and bubble bath
- environmental factors or allergens – such as cold and dry weather, dampness, and more specific things such as house dust mites, pet fur, pollen, and molds
- food allergies – such as allergies to cows’ milk, eggs, peanuts, soya or wheat
- certain materials are worn next to the skin – such as wool and synthetic fabrics
- hormonal changes – women may find their symptoms get worse in the days before their period or during pregnancy
- skin infections
Some people also report their symptoms to get worse when the air is dry or dusty, or when they are stressed, sweaty, or too hot or too cold.
If you’re diagnosed with atopic eczema, a GP will work with you to try to identify any triggers for your symptoms.
Treatments for atopic eczema can help to ease the symptoms. There’s no cure, but many children find their symptoms naturally improve as they get older.
The main treatments for atopic eczema are:
- emollients (moisturizers) – used every day to stop the skin from becoming dry
- topical corticosteroids – creams and ointments used to reduce swelling and redness during flare-ups
Other treatments include:
- topical pimecrolimus or tacrolimus for eczema in sensitive sites not responding to simpler treatment
- antihistamines for severe itching
- bandages or special body suits to allow the body to heal underneath
- more powerful treatments offered by a dermatologist (skin specialist)
The various treatments for atopic eczema are outlined on this page.
As well as the treatments mentioned above, there are things you can do yourself to help ease your symptoms and prevent further problems.
Try to reduce the damage from scratching
Eczema is often itchy, and it can be very tempting to scratch the affected areas of the skin.
But scratching usually damages the skin, which can cause more eczema to occur.
The skin eventually thickens into leathery areas as a result of chronic scratching.
Deep scratching also causes bleeding and increases the risk of your skin becoming infected or scarred.
Try to reduce scratching whenever possible. You could try gently rubbing your skin with your fingers instead.
If your baby has atopic eczema, anti-scratch mittens may stop them from scratching their skin.
Keep your nails short and clean to minimize damage to the skin from unintentional scratching.
Keep your skin covered with light clothing to reduce damage from habitual scratching.
A GP will work with you to establish what might trigger the eczema flare-ups, although it may get better or worse for no obvious reason.
Once you know your triggers, you can try to avoid them.
- if certain fabrics irritate your skin, avoid wearing these and stick to soft, fine-weave clothing or natural materials such as cotton
- if heat aggravates your eczema, keep the rooms in your home cool, especially the bedroom
- avoid using soaps or detergents that may affect your skin – use soap substitutes instead
Although some people with eczema are allergic to house dust mites, trying to rid your home of them is not recommended as it can be difficult and there’s no clear evidence that it helps.
Some foods, such as eggs and cows’ milk, can trigger eczema symptoms.
But you should not make significant changes to your diet without first speaking to a GP.
It may not be healthy to cut these foods from your diet, especially in young children who need the calcium, calories, and protein from these foods.
If a GP suspects a food allergy, you may be referred to a dietitian (a specialist in diet and nutrition).
They can help to work out a way to avoid the food you’re allergic to while ensuring you still get all the nutrition you need.
Alternatively, you may be referred to a hospital specialist, such as an immunologist, dermatologist, or pediatrician.
If you’re breastfeeding a baby with atopic eczema, get medical advice before making any changes to your regular diet.
Emollients are moisturizing treatments applied directly to the skin to reduce water loss and cover it with a protective film.
They’re often used to help manage dry or scaly skin conditions, such as atopic eczema.
In addition to making the skin feel less dry, they may also have a mild anti-inflammatory role and can help reduce the number of flare-ups you have.
If you have mild eczema, talk to a pharmacist for advice on emollients. If you have moderate or severe eczema, talk to a GP.
Choosing an emollient
Several different emollients are available. Talk to a pharmacist for advice on which emollient to use. You may need to try a few to find one that works for you.
You may also be advised to use a mix of emollients, such as:
- an ointment for very dry skin
- a cream or lotion for less dry skin
- an emollient to use instead of soap
- an emollient to use on your face and hands, and a different one to use on your body
The difference between lotions, creams, and ointments is the amount of oil they contain.
Ointments contain the most oil so they can be quite greasy, but are the most effective at keeping moisture in the skin.
Lotions contain the least amount of oil so are not greasy, but can be less effective. Creams are somewhere in between.
If you have been using a particular emollient for some time, it may eventually become less effective or may start to irritate your skin.
If this is the case, you may find another product that suits you better. You can speak to a pharmacist about other options.
The best emollient is the one you feel happy using every day.
How to use emollients
Use your emollient all the time, even if you’re not experiencing symptoms.
Many people find it helpful to keep separate supplies of emollients at work or school, or a tub in the bathroom and one in a living area.
To apply the emollient:
- use a large amount
- do not rub it in – smooth it into the skin in the same direction the hair grows
- after a bath or shower, gently pat the skin dry and apply the emollient while the skin is still moist to keep the moisture in
You should use an emollient at least twice a day if you can, or more often if you have very dry skin.
During a flare-up, apply generous amounts of emollient more frequently, but remember to treat inflamed skin with a topical corticosteroid as emollients used on their own are not enough to control it.
Do not put your fingers into an emollient pot – use a spoon or pump dispenser instead, as this reduces the risk of infection. And never share your emollient with other people.
If your skin is sore and inflamed, a GP may prescribe a topical corticosteroid (applied directly to your skin), which can reduce the inflammation within a few days.
Topical corticosteroids can be prescribed in different strengths, depending on the severity of your atopic eczema and the areas of skin affected.
They can be:
- very mild (such as hydrocortisone)
- moderate (such as betamethasone valerate and clobetasone butyrate)
- strong (such as a higher dose of betamethasone valerate and betamethasone diproprionate)
- very strong (such as clobetasol proprionate and diflucortolone valterate)
If you need to use corticosteroids frequently, see a GP regularly so they can check the treatment is working effectively and that you’re using the right amount.
How to use topical corticosteroids
Do not be afraid to apply the treatment to affected areas to control your eczema.
Unless instructed otherwise by a doctor, follow the directions on the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.
This will give details of how much to apply.
Most people only have to apply it once a day as there’s no evidence there’s any benefit to applying it more often.
When using a topical corticosteroid:
- apply your emollient first and ideally wait around 30 minutes until the emollient has soaked into your skin, or apply the corticosteroid at a different time of day (such as at night)
- apply the recommended amount of the topical corticosteroid to the affected area
- continue to use it until 48 hours after the flare-up has cleared so the inflammation under the skin surface is treated
Occasionally, your doctor may suggest using a topical corticosteroid less frequently, but over a longer period of time. This is designed to help prevent flare-ups.
This is sometimes called weekend treatment, where a person who has already gained control of their eczema uses the topical corticosteroid every weekend on the trouble sites to prevent them from becoming active again.
Topical corticosteroids may cause a mild stinging sensation for less than a minute as you apply them.
In rare cases, they may also cause:
- thinning of the skin – especially if the strong steroids are used in the wrong places, such as the face, for too long (for example, several weeks)
- changes in skin color – usually, skin lightening after many months of using very strong steroids, but most lightening after eczema is a “footprint” of old inflammation and has nothing to do with treatments
- acne (spots) – especially when used on the face in teenagers
- increased hair growth
Most of these side effects will improve once treatment stops.
Your risk of side effects may be increased if you use a strong topical corticosteroid:
- for many months
- in sensitive areas such as the face, armpits, or groin
- in large amounts
You should be prescribed the weakest effective treatment to control your symptoms.
Antihistamines are a type of medicine that block the effects of a substance in the blood called histamine.
They can help relieve the itching associated with atopic eczema.
They can either be sedating, which causes drowsiness, or non-sedating.
If you have severe itching, a GP may suggest trying a non-sedating antihistamine.
If itching during a flare-up affects your sleep, a GP may suggest taking a sedating antihistamine.
Sedating antihistamines can cause drowsiness the following day, so it may be helpful to let your child’s school know they may not be as alert as normal.
Bandages and wet wraps
In some cases, a GP may prescribe medicated bandages, clothing, or wet wraps to wear over areas of skin affected by eczema.
These can either be used over emollients or with topical corticosteroids to prevent scratching, allow the skin underneath to heal, and stop the skin from drying out.
Corticosteroid tablets are rarely used to treat atopic eczema nowadays, but may occasionally be prescribed for short periods of 5 to 7 days to help bring particularly severe flare-ups under control.
Longer courses of treatment are generally avoided because of the risk of potentially serious side effects.
If a GP thinks your condition may be severe enough to benefit from repeated or prolonged treatment with corticosteroid tablets, they’ll probably refer you to a specialist.
Seeing a specialist
In some cases, a GP may refer you to a specialist in treating skin conditions (dermatologist).
You may be referred if:
- a GP is not sure what type of eczema you have
- normal treatment is not controlling your eczema
- your eczema is affecting your daily life
- it’s not clear what’s causing it
A dermatologist may be able to offer the following:
- allergy testing
- a thorough review of your existing treatment – to make sure you’re using enough of the right things at the right times
- topical calcineurin inhibitors – creams and ointments that suppress your immune systems, such as pimecrolimus and tacrolimus
- very strong topical corticosteroids
- bandages or wet wraps
- phototherapy – ultraviolet (UV) light that reduces inflammation
- immunosuppressant tablets – to suppress your immune system, such as azathioprine, ciclosporin and methotrexate
- alitretinoin – medicine to treat severe eczema affecting the hands in adults
- dupilumab – a medicine for adults with moderate to severe eczema that may be tried when other treatments have not worked
- baricitinib – if dupilumab does not work or causes significant side effects then an alternative medicine to dupilumab called baricitinib may be recommended
A dermatologist may also offer additional support to help you use your treatments correctly, such as demonstrations from specialist nurses, and they may be able to refer you for psychological support if you feel you need it.
Some people may find complementary therapies such as herbal remedies helpful in treating their eczema, but there’s little evidence to show these remedies are effective.
If you’re thinking about using complementary therapy, speak to a GP first to ensure the therapy is safe for you to use.
Make sure you continue to use other treatments a GP has prescribed.