stress rash and hives on woman's back
Eczema can cause dry, itchy skin with small bumps.chokja/Getty Images
  • To treat eczema, it's important to use heavy moisturizers like petroleum jelly to trap in moisture.
  • You can also try topical steroids to bring down redness and inflammation.
  • Coal tar can soften the top layer of skin, which can help relieve eczema symptoms. 
  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Eczema is a condition that can cause patches of your skin to become red, itchy, and sometimes blistered. Approximately 1 in 10 people will experience eczema at some point in their life, and for most people symptoms start before the age of 6

Though there is no cure for eczema, there are treatments you can use to relieve your symptoms and keep the condition from getting worse.

Symptoms of eczema

Eczema tends to be chronic, meaning that it comes and goes over a long period of time. Some of the most common symptoms of eczema include:

  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Small bumps on skin that may become crusty or leak fluid when scratched
  • Discolored patches of skin ranging from red to brownish-gray
  • Areas of thick or scaly skin that can become cracked

Symptoms of eczema can be difficult to live with and can limit your ability to work or interrupt your sleep with itching. However, there are several treatments you can use to help improve your symptoms.

1. Apply heavy, oil-based moisturizers

Keeping your skin moisturized is a key step to help control your eczema symptoms. 

This is because many people with eczema have a weak skin barrier, which makes it hard for the skin to retain water. 

"This means more dry skin and easily damaged skin," says Brian Kim, MD, a dermatology professor at the Washington University School of Medicine.

Putting oil-based moisturizers on your skin creates a barrier that keeps water from leaving the skin and helps prevent severe dryness from eczema.

Kim recommends looking for moisturizers or ointments that come in jars rather than lotions that come out of a pump, as these are more likely to contain heavier, oil-based ingredients. You can also look for ingredients like coconut oil, shea butter, or petroleum jelly.

Experts recommend that Vaseline and Aquaphor are both good options for treating eczema. If these ointments feel too greasy to wear throughout the day, you can also apply them at bedtime.

2. Use topical steroids

Topical steroids are medications that you apply directly to your skin to help relieve inflammation

Steroids work by blocking the chemicals that set off your immune system's response to skin irritation, which causes inflammatory symptoms like redness and itching.

People with eczema have immune systems that overreact to any damage of the skin barrier, Kim says. This means that when irritants like pollution or bacteria pass through a weak skin barrier, your immune system will go into overdrive, causing painful and irritating eczema symptoms.

Kim says that eczema patients should use topical steroids as soon as inflammation symptoms start to appear. "This will prevent the inflammation from getting worse over time and harder to control."

Topical steroids like hydrocortisone are available over the counter or your doctor may prescribe them. You can put topical antibiotics on your skin once or twice per day but you should never use them on infected skin unless your doctor approves it.

3. Try coal tar

Coal tar is another eczema remedy that is especially useful because it can be applied to the entire body, including your scalp.

Coal tar works to treat eczema by slowing the growth of new skin cells and softening the top layer of your skin. This allows your skin to more easily shed scales and keep in moisture.

Coal tar comes as a gel, cream, or shampoo and you can find it over the counter at most pharmacies. Shampoo brands include Neutrogena T/Gel and Denorex and skin gels include Betatar and Fototar.

You can apply coal tar gel once or twice per day, while creams can be used up to 4 times a day. When using coal tar shampoo, it's best to consult with your doctor about how often you should use it.

Do not use coal tar on infected or blistered areas of skin and make sure to remove it before going out into the sun, as this can cause a negative skin reaction.

Ask your doctor about skin infection risk 

Because eczema patients have a weak skin barrier, they are at greater risk for skin infections like staph or the herpes simplex virus.

"Bacteria like to live on eczema-prone skin like a parasite," Kim says, adding that one sign of infection is when skin becomes oozy and crusted.

One remedy to treat infections is an antibiotic ointment like bacitracin or Neosporin, which you can find in most pharmacies. These ointments are able to kill bacteria like staph and allow skin to begin healing.

If topical antibiotics aren't helping, your doctor may also prescribe oral antibiotics, Kim says. When using topical or oral antibiotics, you should always consult with your doctor to determine how often and how long you should take them.

Insider's takeaway

Eczema is an uncomfortable condition that can affect you over a long period of time, but there are many treatments available to soothe your symptoms. It's important to be proactive to keep your flare-ups at bay and to talk with your doctor about the best form of treatment for you.

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