What is eczema?


Eczema describes a group of conditions that make your skin dry, irritated, itchy, red and cracked. Some people have a short episode of eczema that then gets better. For others, eczema is a long-term condition they have their whole lives that can often come and go in cycles.

There are a number of different types of eczema.

Atopic eczema

Atopic eczema is the most common form of the condition. The skin becomes itchy, red, dry or cracked. It most frequently appears on the hands, elbow and knee creases. In children, it's often on the face and scalp. It can affect only small patches of skin or can cover most or all of the body. 

It's more common in children, usually developing before their first birthday, though you can also develop atopic eczema as an adult. The exact cause is unknown and it often runs in families.

You may find atopic eczema worsens and improves in cycles and may be triggered by particular irritants (for example soaps and detergents), some fabrics or certain foods.

Many people with atopic eczema have it all their lives. However, children often find their symptoms reduce significantly, or even disappear altogether, as they get older.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is the body's response to contact with an irritant (such as soap or detergent) or allergen (such as jewellery or make-up).The skin becomes red and inflamed, blistered, cracked, dry or thickened. Contact dermatitis is most common on the hands and face.

Your skin may react almost immediately to an irritant or you might only develop dermatitis with repeated exposure (for example, with soap or hand wash). Contact dermatitis from an allergen (such as metal jewellery) can also take several hours or days to develop. Sometimes you will have no reaction at first, but repeated exposure (i.e. wearing the jewellery again) can cause reactions.

Discoid eczema

Discoid eczema is so-called because of the circular or oval patches or 'discs' of eczema it causes. It's thought to be caused by your skin becoming particularly dry. This dryness makes your skin more sensitive to irritation.

Discoid eczema usually begins as a small patch of red dots that quickly join up to form a larger pink, red or brown patch. These patches can be very itchy, particularly at night, and may be swollen or blistered.

Varicose eczema

Varicose eczema – also called venous, gravitational or stasis eczema – affects the lower legs. It's caused by increased pressure in the veins of your legs so it's common in people with varicose veins. 

As well as itchy, red, crusty or flaky skin, you may also experience a brown discolouration of the skin, tenderness and tightness, small white scars and hardened patches of skin (called lipodermatosclerosis). Untreated varicose eczema can lead to leg ulcers, so visit your Doctor if you suspect you may have it.

Pompholyx eczema

Pompholyx or dyshidrotic eczema causes intense itching on the fingers, palms or soles of the feet. It can be triggered by a fungal skin infection, by stress, by coming into contact with something that irritates your skin or by hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating). It's most common in adults under 40. The skin can develop fluid-filled blisters that, in severe cases, may become infected.

What to do next

• If you think you might have eczema, you can ask your pharmacist for advice

• Your pharmacist may advise you to visit your Doctor, particularly if your symptoms are severe

• You can find out more by visiting our page on the management and treatment of eczema