Getting rid of the itch of eczema

Ask the doctors


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Q. I was recently diagnosed with eczema. Is this condition treatable without the use of steroids? I'd like to avoid using them if I can.

A. Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a chronic inflammatory skin condition. Some people with eczema have mild dryness or itchiness, while others experience more severe symptoms, such a scaly rash or skin that cracks and oozes. Eczema is more common in childhood, affecting up to 20% of children, but it also affects adults. The good news is it's not contagious, and in some cases, it's possible to manage the condition without using steroids.

Some cases of eczema are caused by irritation from an outside source (such as a laundry detergent or a certain fabric) or an allergy to a food or substance, such as pollen. Paying attention to flare-ups might help you understand what's triggering the condition so you can avoid the irritant or allergen.

If your eczema is relatively mild, you may be able to control it using moisturizers or petroleum jelly, which can be applied after a bath or shower to seal in moisture, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. In some cases, antihistamines may also help reduce skin irritation.

However, if your eczema is severe, it might be worthwhile to pay a visit to a dermatologist, who can assess your condition and offer treatment options.

— by Hope Ricciotti, M.D., and Hye-Chun Hur, M.D., M.P.H.
Editors in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch