Let's Talk About Eczema FAQs
All the answers to basically everything you've ever wanted to know about this chronic skin condition—and then some.by Jennifer Tzeses Health Writer
It’s the OG itch you can’t scratch, the red inflamer, the chameleon that can strike everyone from babies to seniors—otherwise known by its street name, eczema. There’s a lot of confusion surrounding this complicated skin disorder that can look different from person to person. Naturally, you’ve got questions about this tricky condition. And we’ve got answers.
Our Pro Panel
We went to some of the nation's top experts in eczema to bring you the most up-to-date information possible. Look who's on your side:
JiaDe Yu, M.D.
MGH Contact Dermatitis and Occupational Dermatitis Clinic at the Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School
Cheryl Bayart, M.D.
Dawn Marie R. Davis, M.D.
Professor of Dermatology and Pediatrics Division Chair, Clinical Dermatology
Alert, Alert! Eczema Recap
Before we dive into your pressing Q's let's talk about what eczema is. A common, chronic (non-contagious) skin condition, this disease affects over 30 million people in the U.S.
It can affect people of any age, in any geographic location. Kids are more prone to it, however, with 15% of youngsters developing some form of eczema, versus 2% to 4% of adults.
There are seven different types of eczema and each one comes with its own collection of symptoms. While doctors don’t know exactly what causes it—though genetics are a main suspect—they do know how to identify and manage triggers, such as environmental changes, common household products, and stress.
As of this moment, eczema has no cure. But there are many ways to ease symptoms and effectively fight flareups. Want to know more? Check out these common questions (and expert-approved answers) about the disease.
Is eczema contagious?
This is probably the most common Q of all, and we’re here to give you the final answer: No, eczema is not contagious. You can’t pass it on or catch it from anyone else—even if you come into contact with weepy, leaky skin during a flareup. Period. Dispelling this myth should be your mission, should you choose to accept it. Fear that eczema is contagious is the most damaging untruth associated with this condition because it can make people who have it feel even more self-conscious than they might already be feeling. What is contagious? A little kindness.
Can I swim when I have a flareup?
Yep, go ahead and lap the day away. In fact, chlorine, which is a form of bleach, can help ease the itch and irritation that accompanies a flareup. However, if you have open, leaky lesions on your skin, it’s probably best to save your swim for another day. This is for your own benefit because the bleach in the pool or salt in the ocean can sting and feel very uncomfortable.
Will eczema leave permanent scar damage?
Eczema affects the very top layer of the skin (epidermis) and in and of itself does not cause scarring. It can, however, cause temporary hypo- or hyperpigmentation on the skin (lightening or darkening of the skin in areas affected by eczema, frequently noticeable after a flareup). The change in color is due to inflammation, but this should go away once your symptoms subside. That said, when you scratch itchy skin, you can singlehandedly go deep enough to leave scarring. The moral of this story: Try your hardest not to scratch!
Can the sun help my eczema symptoms?
Yes and no. According to research, for some people, exposure to sunlight may alleviate symptoms of eczema by triggering the release of nitric oxide into the blood stream, which can minimize inflammation. Low doses of UVB rays have also been shown to stimulate vitamin D production, which can improve barrier function and antimicrobial defense.
However, eczema-prone skin is incredibly sensitive, so it’s also more vulnerable to the sun’s damaging rays and more likely to burn. Your best bet is to limit your exposure to short periods of time and always protect your skin with sunscreens that contain mineral-based ingredients such as titanium dioxide (TiO2) and zinc oxide (ZnO). Make sure you use an SPF of 30 or greater with broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
Can I exercise if I’m having an eczema flareup?
Yup. Werk it out all you want! Exercise has big-time benefits including boosting your immune system, which may help you fight off skin infections that can crop up during a flare. When you do hit the gym or yoga studio, try to keep your skin as comfortable as possible—i.e. skip the spandex and any other tight-fitting synthetic fabrics; these tend to be irritating. Instead go for loose cotton workout wear, which lets skin breathe and keeps it from overheating.
Studies show sweat can make your skin itch by leaking into the tissue and causing it to tingle. And, people with eczema tend to have higher glucose levels in their sweat, which can cause itching and keep the skin barrier from repairing itself. If you find your eczema starts to fire after an intense cardio sesh, cool it down with a cold compress.
Can I have sex during an eczema flareup?
Absolutely! Keep up your regularly scheduled relations. But, keep mind that if you or your partner are experiencing a flare in your genital area, it may feel uncomfortable being touched there. You might try a water-based lubricant to make things go a little easier. And, before you engage, make sure any topical steroids are completely absorbed into the skin, so you don’t transfer them to your S.O.
Is eczema a seasonal condition?
Nope, eczema flares can crop up year-round. But, in the winter, skin tends to be drier thanks to the frigid temps outside, dry indoor heat inside, and overall low humidity in the air, which can zap the moisture right out of you. It’s the cardinal rule: The drier your skin, the more likely it will itch and become irritated, which can put your eczema symptoms into overdrive.
Can having a pet cause eczema?
You can breathe a sigh of relief; furry family members are not in the doghouse when it comes to eczema. In fact, studies have shown infants and young children who are exposed to pets, and particularly dogs, early on in life may reduce their risk of developing eczema later. Just be mindful of pet dander (the tiny particles of skin that animals shed on the reg), which is a common allergen that can trigger or worsen eczema symptoms for those who already have it.
Why? People with eczema often have an over-reactive immune system, and when they’re exposed to a certain trigger, the body responds with inflammation. You can keep the dander down by vacuuming regularly, giving fluffy friends frequent baths, and trying to make your bedroom an animal-free zone (we know, snuggling with a fuzzy buddy can be hard to resist!).
How is eczema different from psoriasis?
Good question! Eczema can easily be confused with psoriasis because both conditions cause patches of red, raised, itchy skin. There are subtle differences in the way both look and feel, which can be very tough to distinguish for an untrained eye—though generally, eczema tends to be itchier than psoriasis.
The biggest difference is in their underlying causes. Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease, meaning thanks to a dysfunctional immune system, skin cells grow too fast and pile up on the top of the skin, forming white scales. Eczema is thought to be caused by a genetic mutation that leaves the barrier of the skin weak, making it more susceptible to trap bacteria and viruses. If you think you have either condition, see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.
Does eczema affect people of color differently?
Yes, eczema may look different on those with darker skin. Instead of increased redness, skin may look hyperpigmented. And according to new research, African Americans with eczema tend to have more inflammation than Americans of European descent.
This means that African Americans might require higher doses of medication to treat their condition. But obvi, everyone has their own brand of eczema, and only your doctor can determine the right course of treatment.
Can eczema lead to other skin conditions?
Yes. People with eczema are at a higher risk for having superficial skin infections including bacterial infections like staph, certain viruses such as herpes or warts, and fungal infections. This is because eczema sufferers have a weaker skin barrier, which can act as a VIP pass for infections to enter. If there is a concern about an eczema-related skin infection, see your doctor stat.
How can I tell if my eczema is infected?
This can be tricky to tell because both can cause swollen, itchy skin that tends to ooze and crust. Signs of infection may include:
yellowish-orange or honey-colored crusts that form on top of the eczema
sores that resemble fever blisters or cold sores
red, swollen bumps
redness that spreads throughout the skin
Call your doctor immediately if you have flu-like symptoms or a fever. Bacterial skin infections can be treated with antibiotics, while viral infections require anti-viral medications.
- Eczema Vs. Psoriasis: Current Opinion in Immunology. (2017). “Atopic dermatitis and psoriasis: two different immune diseases or one spectrum?” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28869867?dopt=Abstract
- The Eczema Effect on Skin Color: Experimental Dermatology. (2018). “Atopic dermatitis in diverse racial and ethnic groups-Variations in epidemiology, genetics, clinical presentation and treatment.” onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/exd.13514
- Sex and Eczema: Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. (2019). “The Impact of Atopic Dermatitis on Sexual Health.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30160809
- Sweat and Eczema: Experimental Dermatology. (2019). “Why does sweat lead to the development of itch in atopic dermatitis?” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31152459
- Eczema vs. Psoriasis: Penn Medicine (n.d.). pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2019/august/psoriasis