UNC Health Care
person itching his forearm

Four Things to Know About Eczema

Have you noticed a dry, red rash on your baby’s cheeks, arms or legs? Chances are, your little one has eczema. A condition that makes skin red and itchy, eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is most common in children but can occur at any age.

Eczema is not contagious. Its cause is not known, but researchers think both genetic and environmental factors play a role. Here’s what you need to know to manage eczema, whether it’s affecting your child or you.

1. Eczema normally improves with age.

Eczema tends to occur after 6 months of age and goes away by age 5 in half of children with eczema, says UNC Medical Center dermatologist Puneet Singh Jolly, MD, PhD. “However, for a small part of the population it can persist into adulthood or recur.”

During infancy, eczema usually affects the face, backs of arms and fronts of legs. In older children and adults, it affects the fronts of arms and backs of legs.

2. Eczema can lead to allergies and asthma.

Many children with eczema go on to have food allergies, seasonal allergies and asthma. In fact, up to 80 percent of kids with eczema develop allergies or asthma later in childhood.

“This phenomenon is called the atopic triad. We think eczema, seasonal allergies and asthma share some common pathways,” Dr. Jolly says. “But just because your child has eczema doesn’t mean he or she will have allergies or asthma. It just means there’s a higher risk of it happening.”

3. Dry skin can make eczema worse.

Dry skin can cause skin to itch. Scratching the skin can cause it to turn red, swell and itch even more, and the eczema worsens as a result. One way to help with this is to keep skin moisturized with a thick ointment like petroleum jelly or a thick cream.

“When you moisturize, you’re adding a barrier on top of the skin to prevent water loss from your skin, which keeps it from drying out,” Dr. Jolly says.

He also suggests that lukewarm baths may help hydrate skin better than hot showers, especially in the winter when skin tends to be drier. When you are ready to get out, gently pat dry your skin and then lather on an ointment or cream. Then put on loose-fitting clothing.

“This process locks in the moisture and can provide relief from the itching that comes with eczema,” Dr. Jolly says.

Try these additional steps to reduce your risk of dry, itchy skin:

  • Avoid skin irritants such as chemicals, scented soaps and detergents, fragrances and itchy fabrics like wool.
  • Wash new clothes before wearing them to remove extra dye that can transfer to your skin. These dyes can cause mild to severe skin reactions for people who may be allergic to them.
  • Bathe immediately after swimming to reduce and remove exposure to chemicals found in swimming pools and at beaches.
  • Avoid anything you are allergic to, such as types of food, pollen and animals.

4. There is no cure for eczema, but there are effective treatments.

If regular moisturizing and other self-care steps don’t help, a doctor may prescribe a topical steroid to help alleviate itching and swelling. These also can help repair the skin. If topical steroids are not effective, a doctor may prescribe other types of topical anti-inflammatory medications or stronger oral or injectable medications in severe cases.

In addition, your or your child’s doctor may prescribe an antibiotic cream if the skin has a bacterial infection, an open sore or cracks. A short course of oral antibiotics may be necessary to treat any infections.


If you think you have eczema, talk to your doctor. If you do not have a doctor, find one near you.