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Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a chronic inflammation of the outer layers of the skin. It's not contagious, but we don't know its exact cause. Genetics, environment, and allergies seem to contribute to whether you'll develop eczema.

Risk Factors

Eczema becomes less common over the age of 10 and it’s usually diagnosed under the age of 5. Other risk factors include:

  • Asthma or hay fever
  • Urban areas or places with low humidity
  • Relatives who have eczema or allergic disorders
  • Exposure to certain fabrics, perfumes in soaps, dust mites or foods
  • Stress, especially if it leads to scratching
  • Frequent washing of affected areas
  • Scratching or rubbing of skin
  • Black or Asian ethnicity 
  • Immunosuppressant medications

Eczema Symptoms

Symptoms vary from person to person, and scratching can cause or worsen some of the symptoms. Symptoms include:

  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Cracks behind the ears or in other skin creases
  • Red rashes on the cheeks, arms and legs
  • Red, scaly skin
  • Thick, leathery skin
  • Small, raised bumps on the skin
  • Crusting, oozing or cracking of the skin
  • Symptoms that worsen in the winter when indoor air is dry due to central heating

Diagnosis & Treatment at UVA

Your doctor can usually diagnose eczema based on how your rash looks and where on your body it’s located.  

Treatment options may vary, but their aim is to help you stop scratching, avoid flare-ups and avoid skin infections. Your doctor may recommend more than one treatment depending on your condition. They include:


  • Prescription creams and ointments containing cortisone, tacrolimus or pimecrolimus
  • Oral medications, such as prednisone or cyclosporine (for severe cases)
  • Antibiotics applied directly to the skin or taken by mouth (only for treating infections)
  • Prescription or over-the-counter antihistamines to help prevent itching
  • Treatment with ultraviolet A light and 5-methoxypsoralen (PUVA) 
  • Photophoresis (for severe cases)

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.