One of the most common skin conditions, eczema is notoriously hard to handle.

If you suffer from eczema, you need no introduction to the skin condition. Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, dermatitis and atopic eczema, is very common in the U.S. and appears primarily in infants and children. (Ninety percent of people who get eczema do so before they reach the age of 5.) It’s become much more common over time — and dermatologists aren’t sure why.

Eczema is a fairly simple condition to understand: It’s basically red, itchy skin. You may also notice discolored patches in shades of red and brown, particularly on your hands, wrists, chest, neck, eyelids, feet and ankles, and small bumps. Because it’s so itchy — a hallmark of the condition — the constant scratching can lead to cracked, raw or scaly skin. And, unfortunately, eczema tends to be chronic. But it appears in flares, and some people can go as long as several years without a recurrence.

The condition is related to a gene variation that reduces the skin’s ability to protect itself from irritants, allergens and bacteria. So if you have a personal or family history of eczema — as well as related health issues, such as hay fever, asthma or even food allergies — you’re more likely to experience it yourself.

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While the concept of eczema is simple, the cure is anything but. Really, there isn’t one. All you can do is try to prevent flares and mitigate the side effects.

The first line of defense is moisturizing your skin at least twice a day — ideally, once in the morning and then again at night. Limit showers or baths to 15 minutes, max. Then, when your skin is still damp, pat it dry with a towel and apply an emollient cream.

“These are where the oil content surpasses the water content,” said David Peng, MD, professor of clinical dermatology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and a dermatologist at Keck Medicine of USC. “When you apply these creams, they tend to moisturize far better than lotion, and they don’t evaporate.”

Before bed, slather on an ointment, which stings less than other formulas and may reduce itchiness. “If the itch was so bad you needed to treat it, you use an ointment because it works the best,” Dr. Peng said.

Depending on the severity, a doctor can also prescribe corticosteroid creams or ointments, oral steroids, antibiotics or other medications. You can also try over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams or allergy medicines, which may help to temporarily relieve itchiness.

Anything that inhibits scratching can help, too — since, oftentimes, giving in and scratching the itch only further irritates the affected area. Try pressing on skin, applying bandages to cover the area, keeping your nails very short and indulging in an oatmeal bath, which can feel soothing on skin.

The itch-scratch cycle may make eczema particularly vexing, but with the right steps, you can manage it — and soothe your skin in the process.

By Deanna Pai

Suffering from eczema? Make an appointment with one of our dermatologists. To schedule an appointment, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit dermatology.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.