Eczema in Adults: Dealing With Itching

From the WebMD Archives

The itching of eczema can sometimes feel unbearable. And yet, the more you scratch, the itchier your skin becomes.

To stop the cycle of eczema, here are six tips to soothe the itch.

1. Moisturize skin affected by eczema often.

In most cases, moisturizers are the first step in itch control. Applying moisturizer helps lock in your skin’s own moisture. "Recent studies reveal that individuals with eczema have gaps between the cells in their skin that allow allergens to get in," says Andrea Cambio, MD, FAAD, medical director of Cambio Dermatology in southwest Florida. "Moisturizer can fill these gaps and make it harder for allergens to get into the skin."

The key is to moisturize often, especially right after bathing or washing. Look for a moisturizer that is unscented, because additives and fragrances can irritate the skin. For the most moisture protection, choose a thicker ointment, like petroleum jelly. Ointments contain more oil than water and are more effective than creams or lotions at locking in moisture.

But the most important thing is to choose a moisturizer you like. "If you like how the moisturizer feels on your skin, you’re more likely to use it often," says Lawrence Eichenfield, MD, chief of Pediatric Dermatology at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego.

2. Take an oatmeal or bleach bath.

A short bath in lukewarm water with colloidal oatmeal can help ease itching. Purchase a pre-packaged oatmeal bath mix at your local drug store. Follow the directions on the label and soak about 15 to 20 minutes. After your bath, gently pat yourself dry with a soft towel. Then apply moisturizer right away, ideally while the skin is still damp.

Diluted bleach baths can reduce your risk of getting a skin infection that may worsen your eczema symptoms. For a bleach bath, add 1/2 cup of bleach for a full tub of water, or 1/4 cup for a half tub of water and mix well. Soak for about 10 minutes, and then rinse your skin with clean lukewarm water. Because bleach can be caustic, be sure to talk to your doctor first.


3. Use cold compresses to soothe itchy skin.

Cold compresses applied to the skin can also soothe itch. You can place an ice pack inside a plastic bag or soft towel. Hold the ice next to the itchy skin for a few minutes or as needed to help relieve itch.

4. Wear comfortable fabrics that feel good.

Choose comfortable, loose-fitting fabrics that make your skin feel good. Cottons and cotton blends are usually the most comfortable. Avoid coarse materials, wool, and synthetic fabrics since these fabrics can irritate your skin.

5. Keep your fingernails short to prevent skin damage.

Short fingernails cause less damage to the skin if you do happen to scratch. If you find yourself scratching at night, try wearing cotton gloves to bed.

6. Ask about eczema medications.

If none of these steps helps with itch control, ask your doctor about medications. When used as directed, these medications work well to control eczema flare-ups. "Topical anti-inflammatory creams, such as 1% hydrocortisone, are useful during a flare," says Cambio. "But you might need a stronger prescription if over-the-counter treatments don’t appear to control symptoms."

Oral antihistamines can also help relieve the itch of eczema. These are medications that you take by mouth. "Although experts disagree about how helpful antihistamines are for eczema, many patients find that they do help relieve itch," says Eichenfield. But be careful if you’re using antihistamines during the day because some can make you sleepy.

With so many ways to relieve itching, there’s no need to suffer. "If you’re really suffering with itch, or it’s keeping you up at night, see your doctor. It’s likely that your eczema is undertreated," says Eichenfield.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 29, 2012



Lawrence Eichenfield, MD, chief of Pediatric Dermatology at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego; professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.

Andrea Cambio, MD, FAAD, medical director of Cambio Dermatology, Cape Coral, Fla. "Eczema: Tips on How to Care for Your Skin."

National Eczema Association: "Bathing and Moisturizing."

American Academy of Dermatology: EczemaNet: "Preventing Flare-Ups."

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Atopic Dermatitis."

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