Just when you think the redness, dryness and itchiness have finally gone away — there it is again. You look down at your finger, wrist or elbow, and another eczema flare-up has popped up.
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You probably have your trusty petroleum jelly at the ready to alleviate your eczema’s dryness, but wouldn’t it be great if you could just stop the flare-up before it hits?
Atopic dermatitis is the most common type of eczema, but that doesn’t make it any less tricky to manage. The key is knowing your specific triggers and making necessary changes to avoid future flare-ups.
Dermatologist John Anthony, MD, explains why these flare-ups come up in the first place and how you can take steps to prevent them.
An eczema flare-up can be characterized not only by how it looks, but also by how it feels. You’re probably experiencing an eczema flare-up if one or more areas, like your hands, feet, chest or neck, break out in an itchy or dry rash.
More specifically, an eczema flare-up can include symptoms like:
These symptoms can occur for several weeks and then go away, or they can last for even longer in some cases. But for many, flare-ups tend to come back around like a spiral, usually in conjunction with a specific irritant, allergy or trigger.
Your healthcare provider may have asked you to pay attention to any patterns you see in your flare-up. Does it happen when the AC or heater is blasting in your room? When you go swimming in a chlorine pool? Or maybe when you use a scented hand lotion?
This will all depend on what triggers your eczema — which can sometimes be a combination of factors. So, before we get into the specific triggers and how to avoid them, it’s good to know how they interact with your skin so you can more easily identify them.
As Dr. Anthony points out, there are also different types of triggers or “contacts” that can cause an eczema flare-up. The two types of eczema flare-up triggers are allergens and irritants.
Allergens can be a bit tricky to identify because they can be an allergen in something like a specific ingredient in a soap, bubble bath or shampoo.
“This involves reactions to things like hair dye, and preservatives and fragrances,” Dr. Anthony says. “And with this one, we really have to figure out what they are specifically with patch testing.”
In addition, some people may also find that their eczema flares up when other allergies are worsened. For this kind of allergic reaction, an allergist would need to identify the causes and how to move forward.
Some common allergens that can trigger eczema flare-ups include:
The next type of trigger is much more common and it’s called irritant contact. “This involves things like friction when washing your hands and drying them out or using a cleanser that's harsh,” Dr. Anthony explains. “The harsh cleaner or solvent takes all the fat and oil out of the skin and damages the skin barrier.”
Some common irritants that can cause eczema flare-ups include:
It’s also important to note that an irritant contact trigger can weaken your skin to the point that it makes you more susceptible to an allergy. “The irritant not only causes a rash, but it also makes it more likely for you to become allergic to that irritant as well,” he says.
You should speak to your dermatologist or healthcare provider to help figure out which (if not both) kinds of triggers you’re experiencing. This will affect what steps you take to prevent future flare-ups.
How can you put the brakes on this cycle? The key approach is to take good care of your skin even after an eczema flare has gone away or subsided. It’s also important to see a dermatologist to determine whether you need to apply specific prescription creams to treat a particularly bad flare-up.
Combined with lifestyle changes, eczema flare-ups are commonly treated with:
There’s an array of treatments used to treat eczema. This can range from over-the-counter creams and lotions to prescription medications.
“Our goal is to help restore the skin barrier,” Dr. Anthony states. “When the skin is inflamed, it’s partly a result of the skin barrier being compromised. And it allows things to penetrate a little more and for things to be more irritating. So, it ends up being a vicious cycle.”
Additionally, lifestyle adjustments and proper skin care will help relieve and prevent your eczema flare-ups.
Preventing eczema flare-ups is a combination of what you do as well as what you avoid, says Dr. Anthony. If you’re dealing with on-and-off visitation from eczema, you may be wondering if there’s a surefire way you can stop it from ever hitting again.
Many of you dry-skin warriors reading this have probably shrugged off your eczema flare-ups at times as a “deal with it later” kind of problem. But it’s helpful to get ahead of the flare-ups before they get to a painful point. Even mild eczema flare-ups over a long period of time can affect your well-being, and seeing a healthcare provider can help.
Other signs that you need to see a provider for your eczema flare-ups include:
“You might see a dermatologist or an allergist,” says Dr. Anthony. “We all work together to try and figure out if there are any factors you can modify in your lifestyle. And sometimes, there isn’t — so it’s good for people to know that recently there are new medications to treat eczema.”