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What Is Eczema?

An overview of eczema symptoms, causes, and treatments. Plus: how to prevent eczema from striking in the first place.

Eczema overview

“Eczema” does not refer to a single health condition. It’s an umbrella term for a number of closely related skin diseases, all of which cause a cluster of skin issues. Up to 30 percent of the United States population has some form of eczema, and its typical symptoms include red, itchy, swollen patches of skin on the hands, cheeks, feet, or on the insides of the knees or elbows. Regardless of its underlying cause, eczema isn’t contagious, and its symptoms tend to come and go.

While a handful of health conditions cause eczema, the most common trigger is atopic dermatitis—a chronic inflammatory disease that tends to show up during childhood (and usually before age 2). Many people use the terms “eczema” and “atopic dermatitis” interchangeably. But in the same way that not all headaches are migraines, not all eczema cases are atopic dermatitis. Allergies, stress, and contact with substances—including water or chemicals—can trigger eczema flare-ups even in those without atopic dermatitis.

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