Skin Allergy vs. Eczema: How to Tell the Difference


shutterstock_68340541Among the millions of people affected by eczema and other skin allergies, many are diagnosed in infancy or early childhood. Although symptoms may be less severe in adults, as with any medical condition, proper education is crucial in managing symptoms at any age.

Potential Causes

Eczema and “allergic contact dermatitis” (ACD) are both examples of dermatitis (inflammation of the skin).Potential causes for eczema include an abnormal function of the immune system and defects in the skin barrier that allow moisture out and germs in. Genetic factors can play a role in eczema as well.

ACD, on the other hand, is more of a “pure” and clear-cut allergy in which the body is reacting to some chemical that has gotten in contact with the skin. Examples of common allergens that cause ACD include metals like nickel and chemical in clothing, detergent, wet wipes and fragrances.

Triggers and Symptoms

For eczema, certain foods, animal dander, and dust mites can trigger flare-ups. Stress and changes in climate have also been associated with eczema flares. For ACD, these factors are not as important—the main trigger is just continued to exposure to the culprit chemical.

Eczema and ACD can look very similar on the skin. Both appear as patches of itchy, pink, dry and flaky skin. The location of the rash on the body can sometimes provide important clues. Eczema is often seen on the inner knees or elbows (mainly in children) but can also show up on the hands, neck, face and legs. Individuals with eczema can also have itchy and watery eyes, sneezing, and itchy and runny nose. ACD lacks these associations and the distribution on the skin is based on where the culprit chemical is getting in contact with the skin.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, a thorough exam by a board-certified dermatologist can help determine whether you have eczema or ACD. Allergy testing (aka “patch testing”) may assist in determining the diagnosis.

ACD can potentially be cured if the allergen is found and avoided. There is no cure for eczema however, but it can also be managed effectively. Knowing and avoiding triggers, along with preventive measures provided by your doctor, can help minimize reactions and flare-ups.