Eczema is more than just a childhood ailment — it can happen in adults, too. In fact, about 30 percent of the U.S. population is affected by eczema, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
There are several reasons why eczema can appear all of a sudden in adults, or worsen in cases that began in childhood.
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Fortunately, there are some natural and prescription remedies to alleviate eczema in adults. Here, learn why adult eczema occurs and how to reduce that dry itchiness.
First, What Is Eczema?
Eczema, also called dermatitis, is a catch-all term for several different kinds of skin issues that are both chronic and non-contagious, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Most of the time, eczema looks and feels like dry, itchy skin rashes on certain areas of the body like the face, hands, feet, behind the knees and inside the elbows.
While it's most common in children, sometimes sudden eczema can appear in adults. It can also worsen over time if you've had it since adolescence.
Turns out, there are seven different types of eczema. These include, per the National Eczema Association:
- Atopic dermatitis
- Contact dermatitis
- Dyshidrotic eczema
- Nummular eczema
- Seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff)
- Stasis dermatitis
Each type of eczema can have a different cause and may look different depending on the person. For example, eczema can look red in people with lighter skin and purple/grey in people with darker skin. Some types may also cause blisters.
Sometimes, if you scratch eczema, it can also cause bleeding, per the Cleveland Clinic.
What Causes Eczema in Adults?
It's normal for skin to change as you get older, and those changes can affect how susceptible you are to eczema. Common causes include:
1. Dry Skin
"Aging skin loses its ability to hold onto water, the collagen diminishes and skin tends to be dryer," says Leah Ansell, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York.
Collagen is a protein in bones, hair, muscles and yes, skin. When you age and lose collagen, your bones and hair can become brittle and your skin may sag, per Cedars Sinai. Sagging skin can become dry skin, which can bring on dermatitis.
Certain medications more commonly prescribed in older adults (like statins to lower cholesterol) can also contribute to dry skin. And because dry skin is one of the major contributors to eczema, you may find a flare or two of those itchy patches while on a certain med, Dr. Ansell says.
Other medications that can cause dry skin and eczema flares include the following, per Harvard Health Publishing:
- Blood thinners like warfarin: These can cause dry, thin skin
- Acne medications like accutane: These can cause dry skin and dry mouth
The hormonal changes you experience during menopause can also have an effect on your skin.
Menopause is associated with a decrease in estrogen, a hormone that typically regulates the menstrual cycle and keeps bones, hair and skin healthy, per Johns Hopkins Medicine. The drop in estrogen causes a change in your skin's microbiome and causes skin to produce less oil, per the National Eczema Society.
This leads to dryer skin and a change in the type of bacteria on the skin, both of which weaken the skin barrier and increase the risk of developing eczema, according to the National Eczema Society.
Another common cause of eczema in adults is stress.
A 2020 patient survey by the National Eczema Society looked at what causes eczema flare-ups in adults. It found that stress was the greatest trigger, especially among women. (Note: The surveyors identified participants as women and men, which is why we've included this type of gendered language. LIVESTRONG.com otherwise tries to avoid using gendered language.)
The survey also warned that stress can contribute to inflammation throughout the body and limit the skin's ability to repair itself.
5 Types of Eczema in Older Adults
Now that we know the causes of eczema in adults, we can determine the type of eczema adults can get. Each type comes with its own set of triggers, symptoms and appearance. The most common types include:
1. Venous Stasis Dermatitis (Venous Eczema)
This type of eczema affects the lower legs and typically appears along with varicose veins, leg swelling and high blood pressure in adults over the age of 50, according to the National Eczema Association.
Other symptoms can include a heavy or achy feeling in the legs after sitting or standing for long periods, and dry, scaling skin.
If left untreated, venous eczema can break down the skin and cause ulcers to form.
If you suspect you have varicose or venous stasis dermatitis, call your doctor or dermatologist to set up an appointment. Treatment for this type of eczema typically includes compression socks and leg elevation to reduce swelling, consistent dry skin care, avoiding foods high in salt, vitamin C supplements or a topical corticosteroid cream to relieve itchiness, per the National Eczema Association.
2. Asteatotic Eczema
This is a common type of eczema in older adults, however, some people in their 20s can get this skin condition, per the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD).
Asteatotic eczema, also called xerotic eczema often appears on the shins and lower legs, and looks dry and flakey. People tend to develop this eczema in winter months, from lack of humidity and wearing wool or other fabrics that can be irritating, per the AOCD.
Asteatotic eczema can be treated with a simple moisturizing ointment or eczema cream. You can also try natural remedies like taking short, cool showers, using fragrance-free soap, taking oatmeal baths or wearing light, non-restrictive clothing, per the AOCD.
3. Nummular Eczema
This type of eczema looks like coin-shaped lesions (or red spots), usually on the arms and legs. While it's chronic, nummular eczema can come and go, with flares lasting weeks to months, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Doctors are unsure exactly why nummular eczema occurs, but it could be triggered by allergies, a bacterial infection or irritants like rough fabrics or hygiene products, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Your dermatologist may prescribe a variety of different medications to help prevent and reduce the severity of nummular eczema flare-ups. These include corticosteroids, antibiotics and anti-itch creams. You can also avoid tight clothing and irritating fabrics/products and use gentle cleansers on your skin, per the Cleveland Clinic.
4. Hand Eczema
One of the most common types of eczema is hand eczema. It mainly affects the palms but can occur anywhere on the hand.
With hand eczema, the skin is dry, itchy and can bleed or develop blisters, Dr. Ansell says. "This is typically due to over-washing your hands. It results in excessively dry skin with roughness and painful cracks," she adds.
Hand eczema symptoms can be relieved by properly moisturizing your hands after you wash them. Try to wash hands less often, but if you do need to, use warm water and fragrance-free soap. You can also wear rubber gloves when washing dishes or cotton gloves while cleaning to avoid hand eczema flares, per the National Eczema Association.
5. Eyelid Eczema
This is another very common type of eczema in adults, due to the delicate nature of the skin around the eyes. Because the skin in that area naturally folds (especially as you age), it is common for allergens to come into and stay in contact with the skin, causing the symptoms of eczema, per the National Eczema Society.
Common allergens and irritants that lead to eyelid eczema include makeup, skin-care products, nail polish, towels or clothing and even certain eyedrops containing neomycin, per the National Eczema Society.
Eyelid eczema symptoms can be treated with emollients (like Vaseline and petroleum jelly) or low doses of topical steroids prescribed by your dermatologist. Make sure you use medications as prescribed, and try to avoid irritants for some relief from itching, per the Cleveland Clinic.
4 Tips to Manage Eczema as an Adult
Managing eczema as an adult means focusing on moisturizing skin properly, managing triggers and being gentle with your skin, per the American Academy of Dermatology.
While eczema cannot be cured, it can often be managed through the following steps:
1. Manage Underlying Conditions
It is common for people with eczema to also have seasonal and food allergies, Dr. Ansell says. Treating seasonal allergies with antihistamines can help control symptoms. Your doctor can suggest the right antihistamine for you, which can also improve the outcomes for your eczema.
2. Use Products With Ceramides
"Ceramides are a fat that is commonly lost in eczema-prone skin," Dr. Ansell says. Creams containing ceramides help to replenish the skin's barrier, she adds.
Dr. Moore recommends products by CeraVe because they are filled with ceramides to help soothe and moisturize the skin.
3. Watch for Triggers
Be mindful of triggers — i.e., anything that causes your eczema to flare up, per the American Academy of Dermatology. Everyone has different triggers, so learning what yours are and avoiding them is key to improving your eczema symptoms.
Triggers can include hot or cold weather, laundry detergents, certain foods, perfume, skin-care products, stress and more. You may even want to eat a diet to help eczema symptoms, to narrow down your triggers.
"Stress can especially make any inflammatory disorder worse," says Harry Dao, MD, chair of dermatology at Loma Linda University.
Stress-reduction techniques may not cure eczema, but they should be able to calm down symptoms to a degree and help patients manage their eczema in a more productive way, he adds.
4. Moisturize With Bath Oils
"Adding bath oils to bathwater can help soothe dry, itchy skin," he says.
When to See a Doctor
Whether you got eczema all of a sudden, or you've had it since childhood, eczema can worsen as you age.
If you've tried home remedies and are still experiencing discomfort associated with your eczema, it may be time to see a doctor. Persistent symptoms that don't improve with the use of over-the-counter products should be seen by a medical provider.
"Oftentimes in dermatology, we say that itch is much worse than pain," Dr. Dao says. That's why it's important to diagnose eczema and help treat it to improve your quality of life.
- Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis)
- Menopause and Eczema
- Eczema around the eyes
- Nummular Dermatitis
- Varicose Eczema
- NIH: "Atopic Dermatitis"
- National Eczema Association: "An Overview of the Different Types of Eczema"
- NLM: "Eczema and the Cold"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Dyshidrotic Eczema"
- Cedars Sinai: "Collagen for Your Skin"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Medication and Your Skin"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Estrogen's Effects On the Female Body"
- National Eczema Society: "Eczema Unmasked"
- Brian Moore, MD, FAAD
- National Eczema Association: "Stasis Dermatitis"
- AOCD: "Asteatotic Eczema"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Nummular Eczema"
- National Eczema Association: "Hand Eczema"
- National Eczema Society: "Eczema Around the Eyes"
- Cleveland CLinic: "Emollients"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.