What is eczema and is it caused by an allergy?

It ‘s important to understand the cause of eczema, how to treat it and test if it is caused by an allergy. We explain.


What is eczema?

Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a chronic inflammatory skin condition, which affects approximately one third of the Australian population at some point in life. It typically presents as patches of skin which become red, itchy, dry and scaly. In some cases, the skin may even weep, and it’s usually found in the creases of the elbows, behind the knees, across the ankles, and sometimes the wrists, face, ears and neck.

Who does eczema affect?

Usually infants and young children. It affects one in five children under two years of age. Symptoms of eczema usually improves with age, however many children will continue to have a tendency for dry, sensitive skin, through to adulthood. Eczema is not frequently observed in older children and adults (ASCIA, 2013).

What causes eczema?

The cause of eczema is not well understood. In most cases, eczema is thought to be a hereditary condition. “A strong association between eczema and allergic disorders (such as asthma, hay fever and food allergies) has been identified in the literature.” It is important to understand that eczema is not an allergic reaction, so an allergy to a particular substance will not cause an individual to develop eczema (ASCIA, 2013).  However, many children whom have eczema may have undiagnosed allergies.

Eczema triggers

– Dry skin
– Scratching
– Tight clothing
– Direct contact with grasses, carpets, sand, pet dander
– Chlorinated pools
– Irritants (soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, perfumes, washing powders, fabrics)
– Inhalant allergens (pollens, mould)
– Dust mites
– Tobacco smoke
– Air-conditioning
– Temperature changes (overheating)
– Weather conditions (hot/humid or cold/dry weather)
– Food intolerances (e.g. dairy products, wheat products, eggs, seafood, artificial flavourings , colourings and preservatives)
– Alcohol
– Exercise
– Stress

Please note these are examples of potential triggers of eczema, and it is not routinely recommended individuals with eczema avoid all of these triggers without seeking the advice of a qualified health professional.

How is eczema treated?

While there is no cure for eczema, the focus of eczema treatment is prevention and management of symptoms:

1 . Maintain and protect the skin

The use of emollients is essential to keep dry skin moisturised and minimise itchiness.

2. Promptly treat eczema flare-ups

It is important to eczema flare-ups are treated quickly with topical steroids to reduce skin inflammation. Individuals should also continue applying emollients to keep the skin moisturised.

3. Control eczema itch

Eczema itchiness can be very distressing. Scratching can cause eczema to worsen and increases risk for infection. To control itchiness, individuals can apply cold compresses or wet wraps. Antihistamines are not usually very effective for eczema itch, but may sometimes help.

4. Prevent and treat infection

Although eczema is not infectious, it can become infected particularly with staph aureus.  Eczema compromises skin integrity and impairs the natural barrier function of skin against bacteria. It is important individuals keep their skin well moisturised, and refrain from scratching to reduce chances of infection. Should eczema become infected, it is important it is treated promptly. Sometimes oral antibiotics may even be needed.

5. Avoid triggers and irritants

Do you know your triggers? Identifying and avoiding triggers which aggravate eczema can be very helpful in preventing and/or decreasing the severity of, eczema flare-ups.

To find out which allergic triggers are a concern for your eczema, contact our clinic on 02-9252 2225 and ask about our Allergy Clinic. We have trained doctors who can test for allergies and discuss the appropriate eczema treatment plan for you. 


By Dr Suzan Bekir

Eczema Association Australia. 2015. Caring for your asthma. Accessed 5 August, 2015, http://eczema.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Caring-for-Your-Eczema.pdf
Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy [ASCIA]. 2013. Eczema (atopic dermatitis). Information for patients, consumers and carers. Accessed 5 August, 2015, http://www.allergy.org.au/images/pcc/ASCIA_PCC_Eczema_2013.pdf
Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy [ASCIA]. 2015. Action Plan for Eczema. Accessed 5 August, 2015, http://www.allergy.org.au/images/pcc/Eczema_Action_Plan_2015.pdf
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