Dermatologists share their tips for tackling eczema flare-ups

Eczema won’t go away for good, but you can keep flare-ups at bay with these pro tips.
Showing off her pink eyelids on Instagram, Elle Fanning called attention to her skin condition during National Eczema Week in September.
Showing off her pink eyelids on Instagram, Elle Fanning called attention to her skin condition during National Eczema Week in September.ellefanning/Instagram

What is eczema? Eczema is a condition that causes red, itchy skin. It can start at any age, but eczema on a baby is common. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) estimates that 60% of the time, eczema starts in a child’s first year. There are seven different types of eczema, and atopic dermatitis is the most common. Sometimes the terms “eczema” and “atopic dermatitis” are used interchangeably.

Types of eczema:

  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Neurodermatitis
  • Dyshidrotic eczema
  • Nummular eczema
  • Seborrheic dermatitis
  • Stasis dermatitis

Showing off her pink eyelids, Elle Fanning called attention to her skin condition during National Eczema Week in September. The actor got real about the condition when she posted a series of three selfies on Instagram revealing a eczema on her eyelids with the caption: "Eczema but make it eye shadow". In a recent interview with Glamour magazine, Fanning mentioned how having "really bad eczema" makes her itch a lot, especially when she's stressed. To help soothe her skin, the star of the new Hulu series, "The Great," said she takes oatmeal baths.

Fanning isn’t the only the celebrity with the condition. Catherine Zeta Jones, Kerry Washington and Adele have spoken out about having eczema. According to the National Eczema Association (NEA), more than 30 million people in the U.S. have the condition.

Elle Fanning at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2020. Photo: Kurt Krieger/Corbis via Getty Images.Kurt Krieger / Corbis via Getty Images

Eczema itching

The itching caused by eczema can be tough to tolerate, and it leads to struggles for babies, children and parents. “They lose sleep, the family loses sleep, they miss school and they’re at increased risk of failing a year in school,” said Dr. Amy McMichael, chair of the dermatology department at Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Symptoms of eczema

Symptoms of eczema are different for everyone. Your symptoms, or your child’s, might even look different at different times. Eczema is almost always itchy, and scratching can make it worse. “It’s the itch that rashes,” said Dr. Carolyn Jacob, medical director of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). “Scratching can develop the rash.”

According to the NEA, you might also notice these symptoms:

  • Dry or red skin
  • Dark, rough or scaly skin
  • Swelling
  • Oozing or crusting

Eczema on hands or feet could be dyshidrotic eczema, which causes itchy blisters on the extremities.

McMichael adds that patients with atopic dermatitis who have darker skin tend to experience more lichenification (a thickening of the skin) and follicular prominence (reactions that occur in the hair follicles) than those with lighter skin.

Causes of eczema

Eczema causes aren’t clear. Research shows that people with eczema may have an overactive immune system. They may also have a genetic factor that makes it easier for moisture to escape from the skin and for bacteria and viruses to enter the skin.

“The skin does not make enough of something called natural moisturizing factor,” Jacob said. “The skin barrier doesn’t work the right way.”

Various triggers can cause flare-ups in people with eczema. Symptoms don’t always appear right away, so it can be tough to figure out what is the cause of eczema flareups.

According to the NEA, common triggers are:

  • Dry skin, sometimes caused by cold air
  • Emotional stress
  • Sweating, being exposed to high humidity or taking hot baths or showers
  • Allergens like pollen, dust mites, pet dander or mold
  • Hormonal changes
  • Nickel and other metals
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Cleansers, soap, shampoos or lotions
  • Antibacterial products
  • Fragrances
  • Wool and polyester fabrics
“Scratching can develop the rash,” said Dr. Carolyn Jacob. gokhanilgaz / Getty Images

Diagnosing eczema

Your dermatologist can diagnose eczema by examining the skin and asking questions about your medical history. Patch tests can eliminate other skin conditions that could be causing the symptoms.

Treatment for eczema

Eczema can’t be cured, but there are a range of treatments for eczema that can help keep symptoms under control.

Stopping the itchiness in yourself or your child is top priority. “The real key to getting them back into life, to pay attention in school and work, is to take down that itching. That is the number one symptom. Certainly, the plaques are unsightly but it’s truly really bad mainly because of the itching,” McMichael said.

There are three things you can do to best control eczema, according to the NEA.

3 ways to keep eczema under control:

  • Avoid triggers. Once you identify triggers you can try to reduce or eliminate exposure.
  • Create a skin-care routine for cleansing and moisturizing. You may want to try creams for eczema, and take special care with eczema on the face.
  • Treat it with over-the-counter medications or talk to your doctor about prescription medications, phototherapy, immunosuppressants, biologic drugs or alternative remedies.

McMichael said that a better understanding of eczema is leading to better treatments, and several drugs now in clinical trials show promise — and may be close to being approved.