Dr. Sonia Batra explains the causes and best treatments for the skin condition eczema.

Over 30 million Americans suffer from some sort of eczema, which is a term used to describe a variety of red, itchy rashes of the skin. There are numerous types of eczema which can occur at any age, but the most prevalent type is atopic dermatitis.

Atopic dermatitis is genetic and usually starts in infancy or childhood. Essentially, the condition is a breakdown of the skin’s function as a barrier for the body. As an organ, the skin’s main job is to protect your body’s systems from the outside world. When a patient suffers from atopic dermatitis, their skin becomes cracked and fissured, breaking the outer seal. As a result, irritants that are meant to be kept out penetrate the skin and cause inflammation and uncomfortable reactions such as itchiness and redness. In some cases of long-term eczema, when the irritated area gets scratched repeatedly over time, the skin will actually thicken.

Common products such as soaps, detergents and fragrances can be irritants, as well as allergenic foods like nuts and dairy. There are also airborne irritants including smoke and pollens that can cause atopic dermatitis to air. Different types of eczema will appear in different places, but atopic dermatitis tends to occur around folds in the skin. For adults, that means the inner folds of the elbow, the backs of the knees and the crease of the neck.

One of the most helpful ways to keep eczema at bay is healthy skin maintenance, or helping seal the broken barrier of skin. Immersion in hot water is very dehydrating, so simply decreasing the length and temperature of a shower or bath can be beneficial. Use gentle cleansers that are hypoallergenic — dye-free and scent-free — and follow every bath with a good moisturizer to decrease irritation. 

When skin irritation does arise, there are prescription- strength barrier creams that can help treat and seal damaged skin. Steroid or other anti-inflammatory creams and cool compresses also help reduce itching. In more severe cases of eczema, systemic pills can be prescribed to calm down inflammation.                                              

Skin conditions in which patients experience dry, red or itchy skin can be very common, especially in winter, but keeping up with preventative maintenance measures is very helpful in keeping the skin healthy. As always, speak to your dermatologist or physician if you are experiencing any unusual, painful or uncomfortable symptoms.          

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Sonia Batra, M.D., M.Sc., MPH is a practicing, board-certified dermatologist who earned her medical degree with honors from Harvard, a master’s degree as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and completed her internship and residency at Stanford University Medical Center. As a recurring co-host on The Doctors, she delivers outstanding and cutting edge medical, surgical, and cosmetic skin care insights. Visit her at www.batraskincare.com.