What Causes Eczema?

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What Are The Causes Of Eczema?

Note: Eczema is also called atopic dermatitis and atopic eczema.

Doctor's still don't really know what causes eczema.

What We Do Know

Dry Skin
It seems that DRY SKIN plays an important role. People with atopic eczema have dry skin, not just in the eczema-prone areas of their body, but all over. The skin cells are less efficient than normal skin cells at retaining water.

Skin Inflammation
There is inflammation of the skin - a reaction that is produced by the immune system. But when it comes to the question of what starts off the inflammation there are huge differences of opinion among specialists treating atopic eczema.

Since people with atopic eczema are atopic (prone to allergies like hay fever and asthma) and most have huge amounts of the allergy antibody, IgE, going round in their blood, it might seem plausible that an allergic reaction to some external item kicks off the inflammation. And when skin-prick tests to common allergens such as house-dust mite are tried, there are usually a large number of positive results.

But many of these turn out to be false positives - when tested more directly, the allergen concerned does not actually play a part in causing the skin symptoms. This has led some specialists working with eczema, mainly dermatologists, to believe that allergic reactions play little part in either initiating or perpetuating atopic eczema. In their view, the basic cause of atopic eczema is dry skin and a generally overwrought or faulty immune system, not specific allergic reactions. A positive skin-test result, in their opinion, simply indicates that the skin of atopic eczema sufferers is in a highly sensitive state, not that the allergen concerned caused it to be so.

Allergists think differently however, and recent research shows that they are right. Allergens often do play a significant part in provoking atopic eczema. Research has identified some of the things that could provoke the condition:

• House-dust mites
• Pollen
• Molds
• Cats, dogs, rabbits and other furry pets
• Cow's milk or other food - a prime suspect in babies and young children. The response to food is usually delayed, occurring a few hours after the item is consumed.

Other Triggers

People with eczema are more susceptible to everyday irritants such as wool and rough synthetic clothes fabrics, soap, and traces of detergent left behind in clothes.

Chlorinated water, either in swimming pools or from the tap, can also aggravate the skin.

Some air pollutants may play a part in atopic eczema. Researchers in Germany found that children living close to busy trunk roads, or in homes with a gas cooker and no extraction hood were more likely to develop eczema.

Various other things can cause an eczema flare up:

• Cold weather
• Dry air
• Long car journeys
• Sweating a lot. Clothes or shoes that trap sweat may also cause problems
• Dust mites, which can act as an irritant, even if not an allergen
• Cleaning materials and other chemicals encountered at work
• Tobacco smoke
• Skin contact with fruit (especially citrus), vegetables, and sometimes other foods. The spray generated by peeling potatoes can even produce eczema on the face.

Anything that increases blood flow through the skin makes the itching worse:

• Heat, especially a hot bath or being too hot in bed
• Anger or embarrassment
• Hot drinks
• Coffee, tea and alcohol because of the drug-like substances they contain
• Vinegar and spicy foods
• Chocolate, soy sauce, yeast extract, orange juice, tomatoes and other foods that are rich in amines.

Tip: How to stop scratching eczema.

Various changes in the body can make the eczema worse:

• Teething, in babies
• Colds and other viral infections
• Certain phases of the menstrual cycle.


Many eczema sufferers are aware that their skin gets worse when they are upset, stressed or anxious before exams, for example. Like other allergic diseases, atopic eczema is not primarily psychological but, once it has begun, psychological factors can play quite a big part.

Related Questions

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What is eczema? An easy explanation of this skin condition.
What is the best moisturizer for eczema?
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How to moisturize your skin if you have eczema.
10 tips you can't do without knowing!
What is the treatment for eczema?
5 important treatment steps.
How the skin works: In-depth explanation of the skin.

• Got another question? See: Allergy Questions

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