1) What is eczema?

Eczema is a broad term used to describe a wide range of non-contagious skin conditions involving inflammation. In most individuals, eczema appears as a red, dry, itchy patch or series of patches which occur when the body?s immune system overreacts to an irritant. In men and women affected by eczema, the condition is often chronic, meaning it can disappear and then recur. The most common type of eczema is atopic dermatitis, which affects between 10 percent and 20 percent of the world?s population during childhood. Eczema can occur on any part of the body, but most often affects the face, neck, elbows, knees, and ankles. Often, the itch occurs first, followed by the development of a red, patchy area once the area is scratched or rubbed. For this reason, physicians often refer to eczema as ?the itch that rashes.?

2) How Is Eczema Diagnosed?

Because eczema can often appear to be an allergic reaction, or can occur as the result of exposure to an allergic trigger, your doctor may take a small biopsy of the skin for lab testing, or may use allergy testing to rule out allergic reaction. Once eczema is determined to be present, your doctor may order additional allergy tests to attempt to determine triggers which caused the eczema to occur.

3) What Is the Treatment for Eczema?

Currently, eczema cannot be cured. Therefore, treatment is aimed at reducing or eliminating the symptoms of eczema, most notably the itching that occurs as a result of the condition. By relieving the itching, physicians can also help to prevent infection that can occur as a result of scratching. Most treatments involve creams and lotions geared to keep the skin moist. In some cases, cold compresses or ice packs may be recommended to control severe itching.

The first line of treatment involves over-the-counter medications, such as hydrocortisone, special shampoos, and antihistamines to reduce itching. Physicians may also prescribe stronger topical or oral medications, including creams or lotions continuing corticosteroids, or oral corticosteroids. In cases where the skin has already become infected as a result of scratching or rubbing the affected area, the physician may also prescribe oral antibiotics to control the infection.

Other treatments include tar products designed to reduce itching, light therapy, and the drug cyclosporine, which is reserved for individuals who do not respond to other treatments. For especially severe cases, physicians may prescribe a special class of drugs which control the immune system reactions thought to be the cause of eczema. These ?immunomodulators? are highly potent and are reserved for men and women for whom all other treatments have failed.

4) How Can Eczema Flare-ups Be Prevented?

Preventing flare-ups is especially important for individuals who are prone to eczema. To prevent the condition from occurring, individuals should moisturize their skin on a regular basis; avoid drastic changes in temperature or humidity; avoid sweating; avoid wearing scratchy fabrics; avoid harsh detergents and soaps; avoid allergic triggers, such as pollen and molds; and reduce stress.
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