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How to ease the symptoms of eczema

Someone applying a soothing cream to their eczema
(Image credit: Getty)

When looking at how to ease the symptoms of eczema it’s important to start by understanding our skin a little better. The skin is a complex barrier that protects us from the elements, regulates our temperature, gives our skin tone and allows us to touch and feel hot and cold. It is strong yet sensitive, easily affected by irritation or broken with a scratch.

Cold and drier weather can adversely affect this defensive boundary. For most of us, this just means our skin becomes drier and we may need to moisturize more often, but the effects of this temperature shift can be worse for people with skin conditions, such as eczema.

Eczema is a group of conditions characterized by dry, red and itchy skin. Chilly and dehydrated wintry air disrupts and weakens the body’s natural barrier, affecting its ability to protect against the elements and exacerbating the symptoms of eczema. Frequently, simply moisturizing more won’t soothe the itchiness and inflammation.

We take a look at the symptoms of eczema, how they can be soothed and whether maintaining humidity within your home could ease the symptoms of eczema. Our guide to the best humidifiers should help you decide which option would suit your needs.

What are the symptoms of eczema?

The term eczema encompasses a number of conditions characterized by itchy and inflamed skin. The skin can be dry and sensitive, have a rash-like appearance, be discolored, or have a rough, leathery or scaly look.

The National Eczema Association (opens in new tab) lists seven types of eczema, each with its own set of symptoms and triggers. Those with eczema may have some, or all, types and their associated symptoms, and experience rare or frequent flareups.

The condition is common, with an estimated 31 million Americans suffering from some form of eczema. Atopic dermatitis is by far the most common form and usually runs in families or affects those with other existing allergies. It often begins in childhood and forms in the creases of the knees and elbows.

Other forms include contact dermatitis, which is brought on by an allergy or touching something that irritates your skin, like bleach, latex or nickel, and dyshidrotic eczema, which causes small blisters on the hands and feet.

The causes of eczema are unknown, but it’s thought a combination of genes and environmental triggers switch on the immune system and lead to inflammation. Eczema can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medicines, immunosuppressants, phototherapy or biologic drugs, but there is no cure.

How to prevent eczema flareups

“Eczema is a genetic skin condition, which is characterized by waxing and waning flares of red, itchy skin patches,” says Dr Marc Serota, a dermatologist at online healthcare provider Wisp (opens in new tab).

Flareups can be caused by exposure to irritants, such as soap or detergents, environmental factors, including cold weather, and allergens like dust mites, pollen and pet dander. Stress, being too hot or too cold, sweat and exposure to water can also trigger a flareup, while even wearing the wrong fabric can initiate symptoms.

Everyone with eczema is different, therefore it’s important to know what triggers your flareups and how to manage the symptoms.

“Avoid triggers, maintain the skin barrier with a good moisturizer, and proactively treat with topical medications at the first sign of trouble,” says Serota.

A daily bath and moisturizing routine can help, although avoid overexposure if water is one of the triggers. Moisturizers containing humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, emollients such as squalene, ceramides and fatty acids and alcohols, and occlusives including petroleum, beeswax and mineral oil can ease the symptoms of eczema and prevent flareups.

And it’s important to ensure you use any OTC and prescription medications consistently and as advised by a medical professional to ensure your skin gets the most benefit.

Can a humidifier help ease the symptoms of eczema?

Do humidifiers help ease eczema symptoms? Well, we know that cold, dry conditions can exacerbate eczema symptoms, but you can counteract this by increasing the humidity – or level of moisture in the air – within your home.

“Humidity helps maintain the normal moisture in the skin, which helps maintain the normal skin barrier functioning,” says Serota. “When the skin dries out the normal skin barrier is disrupted, which leads to redness, cracking, itching and potentially increased allergen exposures and/or infection. Keeping your skin hydrated helps retain normal hydration levels and maintain the skin barrier.”

humidifier being used to reduce the symptoms of eczema

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Most dermatologists advise a humidity of 30%-50%, in line with figures given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (opens in new tab). But in the winter, humidity levels can drop to as low as 10%-20% and cold outside air is heated indoors and becomes dry – conditions that could trigger a flareup.

A humidifier can be used as part of a strategy as advised by a doctor or medical professional to increase the humidity in your home. Humidifiers are only effective in one particular room, and many people find using one in the bedroom – switched on around half an hour before bed and left to run all night – can ease the symptoms of eczema.

Humidifiers add moisture in the form of fine water droplets into the air. There are two types: cool mist or warm mist. A cool-mist humidifier is likely to be the best option as it’s more effective than its warm mist counterpart. Evaporative humidifiers are the most common type of cold-mist humidifier: they use a fan to blow air over a wet wick to distribute moisture. Other types include an ultrasonic humidifier that uses a vibrating nebulizer to emit water, and the impeller, which creates a mist using a rotating disk.

Humidifiers may be beneficial for treating the symptoms of eczema by restoring humidity in the air, but should be used as part of a strategy to treat the condition only if advised by a healthcare professional. The condition can be managed by finding and eliminating or reducing exposure to triggers, and symptoms can be eased by maintaining a consistent moisturizing routine with prescribed medications, and gentle products.

Kerry is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in science and health-related topics. Her work has appeared in many scientific and medical magazines and websites, including Forward, Patient, NetDoctor, YourWeather, the AZO portfolio, and NS Media titles.

Kerry’s articles cover a wide range of topics including astronomy, nanotechnology, physics, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and mental health, but she has a particular interest in environmental science, cleantech and climate change. 

​​​Kerry is NCTJ trained, and has a degree Natural Sciences from the University of Bath where she studied a range of topics, including chemistry, biology, and environmental sciences.