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Conditions That Can Look Like Eczema but Aren’t

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 13, 2021

Eczema is the name for a group of conditions that can make your skin irritated, inflamed, and itchy. Your doctor may call it atopic dermatitis, which is also the most common type of eczema. You’re more likely to get eczema when you’re a child, but adults can get it, too.

The symptoms you have and where they show up on your body vary from person to person. You might have one or more of these signs:

  • Itching
  • Dry, sensitive skin
  • Rough or scaly areas
  • Red patches on white skin
  • Gray or violet-brown patches on dark skin
  • Oozing or crusty skin from scratching
  • Swelling

Several health problems can bring on similar symptoms, so it’s important to talk to your doctor, a dermatologist, or an allergist to find out what’s going on with your skin. They might tell you that you have one of these conditions that looks like eczema but isn’t:

Psoriasis. This long-term condition is partly due to your immune system attacking your skin by mistake. Both psoriasis and eczema can bring on symptoms like:

  • Red, scaly patches
  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Itching

Eczema patches tend to be thinner than psoriasis patches. Another difference: Fluid can ooze from your skin with eczema.

Scabies. This contagious condition happens when tiny bugs called mites burrow into the top layer of your skin and lay eggs. You might have symptoms like bad itching and a rash that looks like pimples. Like eczema, you could also get scaly-looking patches.

Unlike eczema, itching from scabies tends to get worse at night. You also might see a few tiny raised and crooked lines that look gray-white or flesh-colored on parts of your skin where the mites burrow.

Hives. These red or pink welts can be large or small. They might show up alone or in a big group. Like eczema, they usually itch. Unlike eczema, they tend to go away within 24 hours -- although new ones can quickly show up and may continue to do so for weeks or longer. Another difference is that hives can lead to swelling of your lips, eyelids, and throat.

Allergies. Some people’s eczema flares up due to allergens like pet dander and dust mites. But lots of things can trigger eczema, including certain fabrics, soaps, and detergents. That means allergies may not be the reason your symptoms get worse.

Both eczema and allergies can bring on dry, cracked, reddish skin and itching. But allergies can also give you symptoms like:

Ringworm. Fungus causes this contagious infection, which can make ring-shaped patches slowly grow outward on any part of your skin. On light skin, these itchy patches can look pink or red. On dark skin they might seem brown or gray. But ringworm patches tend to be roundish with a wavy raised border, and with treatment their centers tend to clear up first.

Acne. This skin condition can take several forms, including:

  • Whiteheads: White or flesh-colored blemishes
  • Blackheads: Tiny black spots that look like specks of dirt
  • Pimples: Small, swollen bumps that can be filled with pus
  • Nodules or cysts: Deep-skin breakouts that might feel tender or painful. Cysts have pus in them; nodules don’t.

Contact dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis. These are other types of eczema. Like the most common kind, atopic dermatitis, they can also irritate and inflame your skin and make it itch. Contact dermatitis could also cause burning pain and blisters. Seborrheic dermatitis often results in redness, swelling, and greasy scaling.

Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. The most common type of this rare blood cancer has an early stage that can bring on an itchy rash that may look like eczema. Another more aggressive type can bring on red, swollen skin that itches badly. If you have a rash like this that lingers or that seems like a “stubborn” case of eczema, see a dermatologist just to be sure.

Netherton disease. This is a rare disorder that you’re born with. Like eczema, it can cause skin to look red and scaly, as well as leak fluid. The disease could affect your immune system and make you more likely to get eczema. It may also affect your hair, making it thin and fragile.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology: “Acne: Signs and Symptoms,” “Eczema Resource Center,” “Eczema Types: Atopic Dermatitis Overview,” “Hives: Overview,” “Ringworm: Signs and Symptoms,” “Scabies: Signs and Symptoms.”

National Eczema Association: “Contact Dermatitis,” “Seborrheic Dermatitis,” “What Is Eczema?”

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis),” “Eczema Overview.”

American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: “Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis) Overview.”

National Psoriasis Foundation: “About Psoriasis.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Itchy Rash? How to Tell If It’s Eczema or Psoriasis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Chronic Hives,” “Scabies,” “Slide show: Common skin rashes.”

CDC: “Scabies: Frequently Asked Questions.”

NHS: “Symptoms: Allergies.”

InformedHealth.org: “Allergies: Overview.”

MedlinePlus: “Netherton syndrome.”

National Institutes of Health: “Netherton syndrome.”

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