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Just when you think you have a handle on your skin condition, it suddenly starts getting worse. An eczema flare-up can happen for many reasons, so it can be challenging to pinpoint the exact cause. However, doctors have identified some common triggers.
To help you look and feel your best, we’ve put together a guide on eczema flare-ups. You’ll learn about the symptoms you might notice, find a list of potential triggers that can make your eczema worse, and get tips to help prevent future flare-ups.
Table Of Contents
- What Is Eczema?
- What Is An Eczema Flare-Up?
- Symptoms During A Flare-Up
- How Long Do Eczema Flare-Ups Last?
- Causes Of Eczema Flare-Ups
- How To Prevent Eczema Flare-Ups
What Is Eczema?
Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a chronic skin condition that causes your skin to become dry, itchy, or inflamed. It can appear on different body parts, including your hands, feet, elbows, knees, and face.
People who suffer from eczema often have family members with the condition since genetics play a role in it. But eczema is not contagious; you can't catch it from someone else.
For clarity, we should mention that “eczema” is actually an umbrella term for several different skin conditions. The skin irritation you get from poison ivy is actually a type of eczema, as is the “cradle cap” that many babies get on their scalps.
However, atopic dermatitis is the most common type of eczema, and it’s the type that we’ll be talking about for the rest of this article.
It’s also important to understand that eczema is sometimes mistaken for other skin conditions. Psoriasis, for example, is an autoimmune disorder that causes areas of scaly red or white skin. Scabies and ringworm are two types of infection that can result in eczema-like symptoms.
Dry skin is simply a lack of moisture in the skin. This can result in roughness, fine lines, itching, scaling or peeling, and even cracks that may bleed. It can be caused by some of the same factors as an eczema flare-up, but it’s a temporary condition.
If you’re in any doubt about whether the symptoms you’re experiencing are a result of eczema, consult with a dermatologist so you can get a proper diagnosis and develop an effective treatment plan.
What Is An Eczema Flare-Up?
To understand what an eczema flare-up is, we first need to discuss the most frustrating thing about eczema. The fact is that there is currently no “cure” for eczema in its atopic dermatitis form.
Dealing with eczema is not a matter of being diagnosed, undergoing treatment, and then recovering once and for all. For many people who suffer from eczema, it’s a condition they must deal with for years or even for their entire lives.
You may have long periods when you experience few or no eczema symptoms, followed by periods when you experience frequent flare-ups. An eczema flare-up is simply when your symptoms appear or worsen, which can happen suddenly or gradually.
Flare-ups typically occur after you come in contact with a trigger or when your skin is dry. They can last for a few days or weeks and can be mild, moderate, or severe.
Everyone experiences eczema differently, so your flare-up may not look the same as someone else's. However, if your skin has been improving and then your symptoms start to increase again, you're likely dealing with a flare-up.
Symptoms During A Flare-Up
Dry, Itchy Skin
The most common symptom of an eczema flare-up is dry, itchy skin. The itch might be mild, but it could also be so intense that it disrupts your sleep or interferes with your daily activities.
If you scratch your itchy skin, it can become even more irritated. Sometimes, this can lead to an infection and make your condition worse.
During a flare-up, you might notice that your skin is redder than usual. This is because eczema causes inflammation.
You might also notice swelling near the inflamed areas if you have severe eczema. The swelling can make your skin feel tight and uncomfortable.
Eczema can cause skin rashes that are often red, scaly, and crusty. They can also appear as small, red bumps.
Your rash might be small or large and can start on one body part and then spread to another or stay contained to one area.
It's never fun to see liquid leaking out of your skin but, unfortunately, this sometimes happens during an eczema flare-up.
You might notice small fluid-filled blisters, which can break and leak a clear or straw-colored liquid. The little skin ruptures can be painful and make your skin feel raw.
You should be aware that oozing skin can be a sign of serious eczema complications, including infections. If you see pus-colored liquid coming from areas of your body affected by eczema, consult a doctor right away.
Rough Or Scaly Patches
If you have eczema, you're probably used to your skin feeling dry and irritated. But, during a flare-up, these sensations can become more pronounced.
You might notice that your skin feels especially rough or scaly in places. In addition, these areas are typically discolored, taking on a red or brown hue.
How Long Do Eczema Flare-Ups Last?
That’s the million-dollar question!
There is no simple, generalized statement we can make about the duration of eczema flare-ups. Reducing their duration is a big part of the battle of living with eczema.
But with the right treatment, it’s possible to see clear skin again only a couple of weeks after the first signs of a flare-up.
However, everyone’s eczema is different. The length of your flare-up depends on many factors, including what the trigger was and your unique genetics. So you can’t predict how long a flare-up will last or determine that you’re treating your skin wrong if flare-ups last longer.
More specifically, there are three basic stages that eczema flare-ups can typically go through:
- Acute eczema — This stage usually starts with itching before you see visible signs of inflammation but can progress to redness or other discoloration, swelling, bumps, or blistering.
- Subacute eczema — This stage is characterized by flaky, scaly, or cracked skin; itching, burning, or stinging sensations; and redness or discoloration (though usually less intense than during the acute stage).
- Chronic eczema — This stage occurs when your skin doesn’t fully heal after the subacute stage. It can result in cracks or fissures in your skin, deep lines, dark or dull discoloration, and thick or leathery-feeling skin.
Keep in mind, though, that not every flare-up will progress in a predictable, linear, consistent way. If your eczema affects more than one area of your body, it’s possible for different parts of your body to be in different flare-up stages.
So let’s move on to what you really want to know: what causes eczema flare-ups, and what you can do to stop them and treat them.
Causes Of Eczema Flare-Ups
Just like with how long flare-ups last, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “What causes an eczema flare-up?” The triggers that affect one person might not affect another.
The good news is that doctors have identified several common triggers. By using these known triggers as a starting point, you can determine (and avoid) what causes your own eczema flare-ups and experience more good skin days.
Let’s take a look at some of them below.
As we mentioned earlier, dry skin is a common trigger for eczema flare-ups. When your skin is dried out, it can’t perform its natural barrier function properly. This makes you more vulnerable to irritants that trigger eczema flare-ups.
Dry skin can be caused by the weather, taking hot showers, or using harsh soaps that strip away the natural oils in your skin.
If you’re prone to eczema, it’s important to moisturize regularly, especially during the cold, dry winter months. Our Eczema Daily Calming Cream can be used every day. Formulated with soothing ingredients including colloidal oatmeal, it helps relieve eczema dryness.
Certain products can irritate your skin and cause a flare-up, too. These include fragrances, some dyes, wool, and other fabrics. Other common irritants are:
- Cleaning products
- Dust mites
When you're exposed to an irritant, you might notice that your skin starts to itch, burn, or sting upon contact.
While the link between stress and eczema isn't fully understood, it's clear that there's a connection. If you have eczema, you might find that your symptoms get worse when you're under a lot of stress.
This is because stress can lead to changes in your body that make your skin more sensitive and prone to inflammation.
To improve your skin and reduce eczema flare-ups, try to keep your stress levels down. This could include daily relaxation techniques or seeking out a counselor to discover strategies that work for you.
The food you eat can impact every area of your health, including your skin.
For example, if you eat a lot of processed foods, you might find that your eczema gets worse. This is because processed foods are high in sugar and other inflammatory substances that can trigger a flare-up.
On the other hand, eating a healthy diet full of vitamins and minerals can improve your skin. These foods include the nutrients your body needs to support your skin and keep it healthy.
Some people find that their eczema improves when they eat more anti-inflammatory foods, such as:
- Olive oil
- Fruits and vegetables
Talk to a doctor or nutritionist if you think diet might be affecting your eczema. They can help you figure out if you need to make any changes.
And in addition to taking a look at what you eat, try to drink more water to make sure your skin (and the rest of your body) stays hydrated. Many people are at least slightly dehydrated all of the time without realizing it. Try to drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water each day.
Due to hormonal changes, women with eczema often find that their symptoms get worse during pregnancy or menopause.
If you're dealing with either of these, your regular treatments for eczema might be less effective. That’s because hormonal changes can make your skin more sensitive. You may need to try a different approach or talk to your doctor about other options.
If you’re pregnant, it’s a great time to try some natural eczema remedies to avoid any harsh ingredients that can negatively affect your baby.
Determining Your Eczema Triggers
It may take a little bit of detective work to find the specific triggers of your eczema flare-ups. But if you’re suddenly experiencing more frequent or more severe flare-ups, consider whether there have been any recent changes in your lifestyle or environment.
Have you started using a new cosmetic or cleanser? A new laundry detergent? Has there been a sudden, radical change in the weather?
If you usually have eczema flare-ups on particular parts of your body, like your hands or face, this can tell you a lot about what your flare-up triggers are. The same goes for a sudden flare-up on a part of your body that’s usually eczema-free.
Keeping a journal to document when your flare-ups occur might help you determine what your specific triggers are.
How To Prevent Eczema Flare-Ups
Now that you know more about what can cause your eczema symptoms to worsen, you might wonder how to prevent future flare-ups.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a proven treatment plan that works for everyone. Your exact course of treatment depends on what triggers your condition in the first place and how severe your symptoms are.
If you try different strategies to treat your condition and still experience symptoms, it’s time to talk to a dermatologist. They can help you create a personalized treatment plan.
In the meantime, here are some simple tips that can help keep your skin looking and feeling better.
Avoid Your Triggers
If you know what exacerbates your eczema, it's essential to avoid those triggers. This might mean wearing gloves when you're around known irritants or using a humidifier in your home.
Eliminating flare-up triggers might also mean changing your wardrobe to get rid of rough fabrics like wool or clothes that fit too tightly. Some people also find that switching their bed linens to silk also reduces the frequency and severity of flare-ups.
Another word on bedtime: if you’re the type of person who likes to keep your bedroom chilly at night so you can be cozy burrowed under the covers, you may need to adjust your habits to make sure you aren’t getting too sweaty during the night.
Additionally, jewelry made of or containing nickel (including many silver or white gold pieces, which often have nickel mixed in) can be a skin irritant, especially if you have an allergy to it. It’s possible to develop an allergy to nickel from prolonged exposure.
Eyeglasses, as well as snaps, buttons, and zippers on clothes, sometimes contain nickel as well.
For some people, animal dander can be a trigger for eczema flare-ups. Don’t worry, we’re not suggesting you simply get rid of your beloved pets!
If pet dander is an eczema trigger for you, try to vacuum frequently and wash sheets and clothes more often. Keep your pets off of couches and beds (not easy, we know!), bathe your pets more often, and do any brushing outside if possible.
Finally, one potential eczema trigger that many people don’t expect is candles and air fresheners.
While they may help you relax, the fragrances in air fresheners and scented candles could contain chemicals that trigger flare-ups, much like the fragrances in some cosmetics and personal-care products.
Switch To Moisturizing Self-Care Products
As mentioned above, one of the best things you can do for your eczema is to moisturize your skin regularly. To help keep your skin hydrated, consider switching to self-care products specially formulated for dry or sensitive skin.
For example, use a moisturizing cleanser with gentle ingredients. You can also try using a moisturizer designed for eczema-prone skin, like our Eczema Daily Calming Cream.
The other side of the coin is that avoiding triggers might mean that you need to stop using certain self-care products that are part of your current routine.
As a general rule, try to avoid products containing parabens or phthalates. Also watch out for cocamidopropyl betaine, a chemical used to thicken many lotions and shampoos. Lastly, avoid isothiazolinone, an antibacterial used in some personal care products.
Try Not To Scratch
We know that your eczema patches are itchy, but scratching is one of the worst things you can do for your condition. It can damage your skin and make you more susceptible to infection.
Scratching is one of the main factors that can prevent an eczema flare-up from healing, causing your eczema to move from the subacute stage to the chronic stage.
If you find yourself wanting to scratch, try to take some deep breaths and relax. You might also try holding a cold compress against your skin.
Soaking in a lukewarm colloidal oatmeal bath, applying a wet dressing, or putting some honey directly on your skin are other things you might try to soothe the itch.
Topical steroids, like over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams, are another way to relieve inflammation and reduce itch. You should see improvement with these products in just a few days, but dermatologists recommend not using them for long periods. Be sure to follow your doctor’s directions and pay attention to the label for correct usage.
If you don’t see improvement with any of the above treatments or if your eczema is severe, you may need to see a dermatologist and get a prescription for a stronger treatment option.
Finally, if itchiness is keeping you up at night, consider taking an over-the-counter antihistamine. This can reduce the urge to scratch while also causing drowsiness to help you get a good night’s sleep.
Changing Seasons, Changing Strategies
We’ve talked quite a bit about changes you can make in your home environment to eliminate eczema triggers. However, weather and climate conditions can also trigger flare-ups.
Cold, winter weather can dry out your skin and lead to an eczema flare-up, but hot, humid conditions can be problematic as well. Fortunately, while you can’t control the weather, you can protect yourself from it.
In the winter, cover as much of your skin as possible. Use a scarf or muffler to shield the sensitive skin on your face and gloves or mittens for your hands, but pay attention to the fabric. Use a humidifier in your home, and consider taking a Vitamin D supplement.
In the summer, wear loose clothing to minimize sweating and keep heat from getting trapped against your skin, and apply sunscreen whenever you’re going to spend time outdoors. If you go swimming, change into dry clothes quickly instead of staying in your wet swimsuit.
Living With Eczema
An eczema flare-up can be frustrating, but by understanding your triggers and taking steps to avoid them, you can keep your symptoms under control.
No matter what brings on your own personal eczema flare-ups, with time and the right products, you’ll soon achieve better skin days!