Atopic eczema is a type of dermatitis characterized by red, swollen, cracked, and itchy skin that may form anywhere on the body including on face, on scalp, around eyes, and on hands and feet. According to the National Eczema Association, this condition affects over 31 million people in America.
This skin disorder typically starts developing in childhood and may become more severe over time. Although it’s unclear what causes atopic eczema, the condition is not contagious. You cannot catch the disease from someone who has it or spread it to other people. Here’s more information about this condition to help make managing the disease easier.
What Causes Eczema?
While researchers are not 100-percent sure what causes atopic eczema, it is believed the condition develops as the result of a combination of several factors:
- Genetics – People who have one or more parents or siblings with eczema, a similar atopic disease, asthma, or seasonal allergies are more likely to develop eczema. It is thought that a gene mutation may cause the skin to react to internal or environmental elements in an abnormal way.
- Immune system dysfunction – Eczema may be the result of an autoimmune disease. This is a condition where the body attacks itself, causing chronic inflammation and an assortment of unpleasant symptoms and side effects.
- Environment – Although eczema is not caused by an allergy, it has been found that children who live in areas where pollution is high, in higher social classes, or in cold areas are more likely to develop eczema.
- Mother’s age – Research indicates that children born to older women are more likely to have this skin disorder than children born to younger women. However, why this is the case is not well understood.
- Very dry, irritable skin – This type of skin is unable to retain moisture, which may reduce its ability to act as a barrier against bacteria and other harmful organisms that may infect the skin and cause inflammation.
- Bacteria – Certain bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus, may form a film on the sweat glands that prevents them from functioning properly. The excess moisture that would normally be transferred to the skin’s surface by the sweat glands may instead be distributed underneath the skin and cause irritation.
- Increase in skin sensitivity – Use of chemicals or participation in activities that increase the skin’s sensitivity may contribute to the onset of eczema.
As noted previously, eczema is not an allergic reaction to internal or external factors. However, people who have eczema also tend to have food allergies. In fact, between one-third and two-thirds of children and adults with eczema have food allergies. Dairy, nuts, and egg allergies are the most common. However, the allergy doesn’t necessarily cause or worsen eczema, though it may act as a trigger for symptoms. If you feel there is a connection between the eczema and a food allergy, talk to a healthcare provider before engaging in an elimination diet to ensure you can meet your nutritional needs.
What Causes Eczema in Babies?
Unfortunately, babies can also get eczema. It is believed their skin does not produce enough ceramides, which are fatty cells that help the skin form a barrier to keep in moisture and keep out microbes. Without this barrier, babies’ skin become excessively dry and may trigger eczema flare ups.
The major factor in why babies get eczema is heredity. Defects in the skin that cause it to become more susceptible to internal and environmental elements may also be a cause. Fortunately, babies are more likely to grow out of this skin disease by the time they reach school age.
It’s important to differentiate between an eczema cause and an eczema trigger. An eczema cause is something that led to a person getting the disease in the first place. An eczema trigger is something that causes symptoms to flare up or worsen in a person that already has the disease.
There are a number of things that can trigger an atopic eczema flare up. The most common trigger is anything that topically irritates the skin. For example, wearing clothing made from wool, synthetic, or rough fabrics can trigger an eczema outbreak. Other skin irritants include bar soaps, dish soaps, detergents, disinfectants such as bleach or chlorine, shampoos, bubble bath, dust, sand, cigarette smoke, and the juice from fruits, vegetables, and meats.
Eczema symptoms may also be triggered by one or more of the following:
- Allergens – This includes environmental and food allergies. Milk, eggs, soy, wheat, seeds, and nuts are the most common triggers. However, any food that causes an allergic reaction can also serve as a trigger, so you may want to try an elimination diet to see if it helps your symptoms. Common external allergens that may induce eczema flare ups include dust mites, pet dander, pollens, molds, and dandruff. These items can live in rugs, bedding, and clothing, so vacuuming frequently and washing clothing and bedding in non-irritant detergent may be helpful.
- Disease and infections – Exposure to microbes such as the Staphylococcus aureus and fungi as well as viruses can induce an eczema outbreak. This is particularly true if the microbes cause you to get sick or leads you to develop a skin infection.
- Temperature – Being too hot or too cold can trigger an outbreak as well as taking showers or bath in water that’s very hot or cold. It may be that these extreme temperatures dry the skin and make it more susceptible to irritation. Sweating and then rapidly cooling down can also cause you to break out.
- Stress – Stress has been connected to eczema outbreaks, but the connection is not well understood. Stress can cause a number of adverse reactions in the body including rapid heartbeat, increased body temperature, and hormone imbalance. These and other reactions may be the source of the trigger. On the other hand, the outbreak itself may be the cause of the stress the person feels.
- Hormones – Fluctuations in hormone levels can cause outbreaks, which is why women may experience a worsening of symptoms during their monthly cycles and when they are pregnant.
- Water exposure – Being in water for too long, such as taking a long bath or swimming for extended periods of time, can dry the skin and induce or worsen eczema symptoms.
- Climate and weather – People who live in dry and cold climates may experience more frequent eczema outbreaks because these types of climates don’t allow the skin to get enough or retain moisture. Being places with low humidity can result in the same effect. To reduce the instance of flare ups, be certain the air in your home or office has a minimum of 45 to 55 percent humidity.
- Clothing – As mentioned before, clothes made from rough materials can irritate the skin. However, so can clothing tags and dye residue. Before wearing new clothes, cut out the tags and wash the garments to get rid of any irritants.
- Beauty products – Many beauty products such as body wash and skin cream contain perfumes, alcohol, lanolin, and preservatives that can be very irritating to skin. Even if the product is marked unscented, it may still contain a small amount of fragrance or other substance designed to mask the items original smell. Look for all-natural products labeled fragrance free, and test a small amount on an unseen part of your skin for a reaction before using.
- Cigarette smoke – Not only can cigarette smoke in the environment irritate your skin, but smoking can trigger symptoms as well. Quitting smoking can reduce the frequency of outbreaks and improve the overall look and health of skin.
It’s a good idea to track your outbreaks in a journal. This can help you narrow down possible triggers so you can take steps to minimize their presence in your life. There is no cure for eczema, but following your healthcare provider’s treatment plan and avoiding triggers can help you live comfortably in your skin.