Skip to main content


Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 12, 2024.

What is eczema?

Harvard Health Publishing

Dermatitis is a skin inflammation. Eczema is the most common type of dermatitis.

Eczema first appears as an episode of itching and redness of the skin. You also may have tiny bumps or blisters.

When eczema develops into a long-term condition, it is called chronic eczema. This leads to:

There are many types of eczema. The type depends on the cause, shape and location of the rash.

Some eczemas are related to allergies or to contact with irritating substances. Some are associated with fluid retention in the legs.

Following are types of eczema:


Atopic eczema usually appears early in life, usually by 18 months. In babies, atopic eczema primarily affects the:

Atopic eczema can also develop in adults. In older children, teenagers, and adults it usually involves the:


The second type of contact dermatitis is allergic contact dermatitis. This is an allergic reaction in the skin. This type occurs in people who have an allergy to a specific substance. The most common allergens are poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.

The substances that can trigger skin allergies are commonly found in:


Symptoms of eczema

Short-term symptoms of eczema include itchy skin, redness and tiny bumps or blisters.

If these symptoms remain untreated, the skin can become thick, scaly and dry. There can be areas of hair loss and color changes. Skin affected by long-term eczema is more vulnerable to secondary infections.

Each type of eczema has specific characteristics and patterns of symptoms:

When triggered by an allergic reaction, it usually causes skin redness, fine red bumps or blisters and severe itching.

A reaction caused by plant allergies (like poison ivy or poison oak) is usually intense. It appears as bumps and blisters in lines or streaks where the plant brushed against the skin.

Patches appear most commonly on the scalp as dandruff. But they also can occur elsewhere on the body. They may appear on the eyebrows, eyelids, ears and skin creases near the mouth and nose.

Scalp lesions in infants (cradle cap) can appear yellowish and greasy. They usually cause no discomfort.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

Diagnosing eczema

Depending on your pattern of skin symptoms, your doctor will ask about your:

In many cases, your doctor can diagnose eczema by examining the skin.

If your doctor suspects that allergies are involved, patch testing with various allergy-causing chemicals may be necessary.

Expected duration of eczema

Duration depends on the type of eczema. Symptoms may go away after a week or two. Or they may persist for years.

Preventing eczema

There are many things you can do to prevent or reduce eczema flare-ups.

Treating eczema

Your doctor should review your skin care routine. Your doctor can ensure you are doing everything possible to prevent symptoms.

But sometimes eczema remains bothersome despite these measures.

Your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid ointment or cream. In atopic dermatitis, mild or medium strength topical steroids generally are used. These are applied to the affected areas of the skin.

When topical corticosteroids are not sufficient or needed for long periods of time to control atopic dermatitis, your doctor may prescribe a topical calcineurin inhibitor. Tacrolimus and pimecrolimus topical agents are approved for use in children older than 2 years of age.

Strong steroids and oral antihistamines may be needed to treat allergic contact dermatitis.

If there are signs of bacterial skin infection, oral antibiotics usually are needed.

Sometimes, in very severe cases of eczema, your doctor will prescribe a short course of oral steroids or stronger immunosuppressants. However, these medications can have serious side effects. They must be used cautiously.

In some people, treatment with ultraviolet (UV) light is another option.

Seborrhea in adults is best treated with dandruff shampoo. Occasionally prescription antifungal facial creams or rinses may be needed.

Cradle cap in infants eventually clears up without treatment. However, it can last several months. The crust usually can be loosened. To do so, apply baby oil to the scalp 30 to 60 minutes before brushing with a soft brush. Then wash with baby shampoo.

When treating a contact allergy in a child, avoid topical treatments containing antihistamines. Skin reactions can occur.

When to call a professional

Call your doctor if you have an area of skin that is red and very itchy. Also call if your skin is cracked, blistered or painfully dry.

Ask your doctor for an urgent evaluation if you have signs of infection. These include an area of skin that:


The prognosis varies from person to person. It depends on the type of eczema and its response to treatment.

Most contact dermatitis heals within two to three weeks. Most stasis dermatitis lasts for years.

About half of children with atopic eczema still have the problem as adults.

Additional info

National Eczema Foundation

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

Learn more about Eczema

Treatment options

Care guides guides (external)

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.