Common eczema triggers and what you can do about them

·4-min read
Caucasian woman is scratching her arm. Torso of woman with white shirt and jeans is shown under natural light, horizontal
Caucasian woman is scratching her arm. Torso of woman with white shirt and jeans is shown under natural light, horizontal

If you have eczema, you'll know that some things can make it worse. Read on to learn what causes eczema, common triggers that cause a flare up, and what you can do about them.

See also: Scientists working on eczema treatment turn to body's natural defences

See also: Foods that beat dry skin

What causes eczema?
Eczema is a scaly, itchy rash that can be red and sore. It's known to be hereditary, so if your parents have eczema, or you have a brother or sister with the condition, you're more likely to develop it. It's not infectious, so it can't be passed on through close contact.

Numerous things can cause a flare-up, and these vary from person to person. Typical triggers include:

1. Washing in hot water
Skin that's already dry and sensitive isn't able to retain much moisture, so it's important not to dry it out further by having hot baths or showers. If you prefer to have a bath, don't stay in too long and keep the water lukewarm. Some people find that adding a handful of colloidal oatmeal (a different type to breakfast cereals which shouldn't be eaten) to the water can help to soothe and soften the skin.

Once you're done, gently pat your skin - without rubbing - until damp, and then apply plenty of cream to seal in moisture. If you're allergic to wool, avoid lotions that contain lanolin as it will irritate your skin. If you don't have an allergy, lanolin is likely to help.

If the skin on your hands is particularly dry, you may need to apply cream or a prescribed steroid ointment each time after washing. Speak to your GP about trying a stronger steroid ointment if the creams aren't working,

2. Allergens
People with eczema are susceptible to environmental allergens. Pet hair, dust mites, and mould are the most common offenders and can all cause a flare-up. Be sure to dust and vacuum regularly (you can buy vacuums that are designed to combat allergens) and opt for wooden floors and blinds rather than thick carpets and drapes.

It may be worth investing in anti-allergy bedding – and be sure to wash bedding regularly in hot water.

Ask for help with household chores if cleaning makes your symptoms worse.

3. Getting hot and sweaty
Whether you're working out in the gym or having fun in sun, getting hot and sweaty can play havoc with your eczema.

Exercise in an air-conditioned gym or studio rather than outdoors, and gently dab off sweat rather than rubbing. Swimming can be a good option (just steer clear of the hot tub!) but the chlorine may be irritating to some. Remember to have a lukewarm shower and moisturise well afterwards.

In hot weather, avoid going out in the hottest part of the day and cover up with loose cotton clothing. Sunburn will inflame the skin and make the condition worse, so take care in the sun. If sunscreen irritates your skin, try opting for mineral versions, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, or use sunscreens formulated for the face on your body.

4. Clothing
Clothing made from natural fibres are better than synthetic materials, like polyester and nylon. Opt for loose, breathable cotton and avoid wearing anything scratchy next to the skin, such as wool or mohair. Before wearing new clothes, it's a good idea to wash them at home with fragrance-free detergent – this will ensure any dyes or chemicals are removed.

5. Chemical irritants
When washing clothes, scented fabric softeners and fragranced washing powder are best avoided. Instead, opt for detergent that's formulated for babies or those with sensitive skin. Don't use more than the recommended amount and rinse clothes twice if necessary.

When it comes to shower gel and shampoo, opt for a non-soap cleansers that are pH neutral and fragrance-free.

6. Food allergies and sensitives
Research has found a link between sensitivity to cow's milk and eczema symptoms, particularly in babies and children. Peanuts, soy, wheat, fish, and eggs can also be an issue. Talk to your GP or consult a dermatologist before eliminating any foods from your own, or your child's diet.