Eczema, sometimes referred to as dermatitis, might rank as one of the most common skin complaints, but the exact causes of the condition remain unknown. While the causes may not be entirely understood, eczema tends to be hereditary, meaning you’re more likely to suffer with it if a parent or sibling does. A family or personal history of allergies, like hay fever or asthma, can also increase the risk of developing this chronic and inflammatory skin condition.
Just as your parents play a part in determining your hair and eye color, genetics are the strongest risk factor in developing eczema. If a parent has eczema, children run an 80 percent risk of developing the condition. Eczema typically develops in childhood and often before the age of 5. Worldwide, between 10 and 20 percent of children suffer with eczema, with symptoms sometimes, although not always, diminishing in adulthood.
The saying “good things come in threes” doesn’t always ring true—particularly when it comes to eczema. The skin condition is part of an atopic triad and is closely linked to asthma and hay fever. Atopy means that the immune system reacts abnormally to everyday allergens such as pollen, certain food types, cleaning products or dust. Atopy is what links the trio of diseases together, with eczema often developing first and hay fever and asthma developing later. While the immune system’s reaction to allergens is what causes symptoms to flare up, it can be difficult to keep track of potential allergens—particularly when it could be something as benign as water.
Atopic eczema is the most common form of this condition; contact dermatitis refers to a particular form of eczema that develops when the skin reacts to a substance or allergen. Contact dermatitis is caused by either an irritant—something that damages the outer layer of the skin when it comes it comes into contact—or an allergen that causes the body to react abnormally. Common irritants include cleaning products, soaps, disinfectants, perfumes and some cosmetics.
Those who suffer with eczema often have very dry skin, and while dry skin itself isn’t a cause of the condition, poor barrier function can allow irritants to more easily aggravate the skin. Skin prone to atopic eczema is also less able to retain moisture, making it susceptible to itchy and uncomfortable flare-ups.
This article has been reviewed by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Emmy Graber.