Eczema | Mate harehare

Also known as atopic dermatitis

 Key points about eczema

  • Atopic eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is a very common skin condition that causes your skin to be dry, itchy and red (inflamed).
  • 'Atopic' is a term used to describe a group of conditions including asthma, eczema and hay fever. Atopic eczema is more common if you have one of these conditions or a family member is affected with one.
  • Atopic eczema most frequently occurs in babies and children, though sometimes it can occur for the first time when you're an adult. Many children grow out of atopic eczema, but it can return years later.
Dark haired woman scratching her arm
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Atopic eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is a very common skin condition that causes your skin to be dry, itchy and red (inflamed).

The exact cause of eczema is not known but health professionals believe it's caused by a combination of genes and environmental factors. Some people with atopic eczema have a lower amount of a protein called filaggrin. Filaggrin plays an important role in keeping your skin barrier healthy, so having a lower level leads to dry skin and increases the risk of developing eczema.

People with atopic eczema also tend to have an overactive immune system which can be triggered by a substance inside or outside of the body, causing inflammation.

The video below talks about what causes eczema. 

Video: What is eczema?

(Doctorpedia, US, 2018)

Itch is the main symptom of eczema. People often scratch their skin because of the itch, which can be moderate to severe and often worse at night. Skin may also be dry, inflamed and cracked.

Eczema can be mild, moderate or severe. When eczema worsens it’s called a flare-up. Mild cases involve 1 or 2 affected areas. With severe flare-ups, many areas of your skin can be affected and it can last for several weeks.

Eczema can affect any area of the skin:

  • In babies, it's often seen on their face, body, arms and legs.
  • In older children, it's often the skin in the creases behind their knees, wrists, elbows and ankles.
  • in adults it can affect any part of the body with common areas being the wrists, inside elbows, back of knees, trunk and limbs.
  • Sometimes it can affect the face and genital areas.

Sometimes your skin can become infected. Signs and symptoms of infection include:

  • skin that's weepy and crusted
  • lots of white or yellow pimples
  • a sudden flare-up of eczema all over your body
  • shivering
  • painful skin
  • painful blisters that look like chickenpox.


If you suspect infected eczema, see a doctor or nurse as soon as possible. You may need antibiotics to treat the infection.

A trigger is something that makes your eczema worse (flare-up) and can vary from person to person.

Common triggers include:

  • heat or changes in temperature
  • irritants, eg, soap, bubble bath, detergent, fabric conditioner, perfumed products
  • fabrics, (eg, wool or synthetic materials) that can be prickly
  • chemicals, eg, chlorine in a swimming pool or chemicals in a spa
  • environmental allergens, eg, animal dander, pollen, or house dust mites.

Your doctor will usually diagnose eczema based on your medical history including your symptoms and what your skin looks like. Blood tests and skin tests are not usually necessary.

Treating atopic eczema involves looking after your skin, including moisturising and using medicated creams if needed. See our page on dermatitis treatment for helpful self-care advice. See treating atopic eczema in children for more information and read more about topical steroids. 

Apps reviewed by Healthify

You may find it useful to look at some skin care (dermatology) apps.

See your healthcare provider if you're concerned about your skin or think you may have an infection.

Eczema not only affects your skin but can also affect your quality of life. It can have an impact on sleep, self-esteem (particularly if it's visible on your hands or face), work and personal relationships. See your healthcare provider if your eczema is affecting your mood.

Atopic eczema(external link) DermNet, NZ
Childhood eczema(external link) KidsHealth, NZ
Eczema and allergies(external link) Allergy NZ
Bleach baths for eczema(external link) Child and Youth Eczema Clinical Network, NZ, 2023
Eczema and food – fast facts(external link) Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, ASCIA, 2020


Skin care (dermatology) apps


Caring for your child's eczema(external link) New Zealand Child and Youth Clinical Network
Bleach bath instructions(external link) Starship, NZ
Infected eczema(external link) Diana Purvis – Paediatric Dermatologist
Eczema(external link) Health Literacy NZ

Action plans

Eczema action plan(external link) New Zealand Child & Youth Clinical Network, 2020
Caring for your child's eczema(external link) Child and Youth Clinical Network, NZ, 2020
Bleach baths for eczema (external link)Child and Youth Clinical Network, NZ, 2023
Eczema action plan(external link) Australasian Society Clinical Immunology & Allergy, 2020


eczema action plan

Eczema action plan

New Zealand Child & Youth Clinical Network, 2020

Caring for your child's eczema

New Zealand Child and Youth Clinical Network, 2023

eczema brochure


Health Literacy NZ

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Credits: Content shared between HealthInfo Canterbury, KidsHealth and Healthify He Puna Waiora as part of a National Health Content Hub Collaborative.

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