Eczema is an itchy rash that's often hard to get rid of. Most people can't help scratching it, which further irritates the skin. Eczema is often, but not always, related to allergies. A common cause is your skin overreacting to everyday irritants, such as dust, soaps and detergents, or even dry, cold air, which triggers an intensely itchy allergic reaction.
Skin affected by eczema becomes dehydrated and dry easily, so treatment involves rehydrating the skin. Baths and showers must be short and not too hot. Afterwards, gently pat your skin dry and promptly apply moisturizers while your skin is still moist. Thick creams that lock in the moisture help the most. Be sure to choose creams or lotions without fragrances or preservatives. Limit the use of soaps and shampoos, too. These products remove the skin's natural oils and worsen dryness. And over-the-counter oral antihistamines can help with the ferocious itch.
When moisturizers and antihistamines don't provide adequate relief, doctors often will recommend an over-the-counter or prescription corticosteroid cream to help quell skin inflammation. If you need steroid cream, don't apply it at the same time you use your moisturizer. The barrier that the moisturizer creates to keep skin hydrated can also keep the skin from absorbing the medicine in the steroid cream. If your eczema is severe, your doctor may give you an oral medication that suppresses the immune system.
While it can be hard to get eczema under control, the good news is that studies suggest that once it is under control, you can help prevent flare-ups with regular use of a steroid cream. Your doctor can also help you develop a personalized plan to keep your eczema in check.
For more advice on treating skin conditions and keeping your skin healthy, check out Skin Care and Repair, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.