Eczema symptoms: what does eczema look and feel like?

We asked 24 young people about how their eczema looks and feels. The main symptoms/features they described were:  
  • itching and scratching
  • flare-ups
  • the way their skin looked (dry, sore)
  • scars and lasting marks

Itching and scratching

Eczema made people’s skins very itchy. This could make it hard to concentrate or sit still. The itching could be intense, constant and uncontrollable. People described their skin as “twitching”, “throbbing”, “stinging” or like having “ants crawling” on it. Some of these sensations were so intense that it made the person want to “squeeze” or “dig out” the itch. Scratching could give relief but, at the same time, people knew that it could make the skin very sore and broken which risked infections and scarring.
People tried to avoid scratching with a number of strategies.  
  • sitting on their hands
  • putting water (hot or cold/ice) on their skin
  • “vigorously” rubbing in moisturiser
  • keeping their nails short
  • using calamine lotion
  • wearing mittens or cotton gloves 
  • finding distractions like playing video games
  • trying to “stop” the itch by smacking, rubbing or pinching the skin as they hoped this would do less damage than scratching
  • avoiding scratching by going out in public or spending time with other people who might find it “impolite”
Being told not to scratch by other people could be frustrating. Although it was often said in a well-meaning way, it could feel like others didn’t understand how intense the itchiness is.
Some people said it became easier for them to control scratching as they got older and “learnt not to.” Abid has been told that he scratched as a baby but he doesn’t remember this and thinks he learnt to control it from a young age.

‘Flare-ups’ are when the eczema changes colour (becoming lighter or darker and, in pale skins, redder) or feel more itchy. This could be caused by an irritant, like itchy fabric, or another trigger – including allergies (see: ‘What are the different types of eczema?’, ‘What causes eczema?’ and ‘Eczema triggers: what can make eczema worse?). For example, Molly described how contact with make-up removers can “feel like my eczema awakening and being like ‘oh hello,’ like coming out”. People may not know what caused a flare-up and it could feel like being “back at square one”, despite all the hard work put into looking after their skins.
Skin texture/feel and look

Eczema can change the look and feel of the skin. Some people described their eczema as looking like rashes, which might be blotchy, bumpy or raised. This can look red in pale skins or dark and dusty in other skin tones. It might also look inflamed and parts of the body, such as around the eyelids, can become swollen. The texture of the skin may become very dry and feel rough “like sandpaper” or tight. Skin can be prone to cracking or splitting. For Katie-Lauren, bending her wrist would cause the skin to tear when her eczema was severe. When the skin broke, it would be sore and stand out with blisters, blood, oozing and scabs. For some, this part of eczema was incredibly painful and the agony of having open wounds makes it difficult to concentrate.
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Skin flaking or peeling can be part of eczema. Gary didn’t mind this though, because he thought that it was a good sign that “normal” skin was developing underneath. Georgia felt self-conscious about shedding skin and worries about leaving flakes behind when she hugs her friends and boyfriend.
Scars and lasting marks

Some people also found that there were lasting impacts on their skin, like scars, even after their eczema had cleared. This made some people feel self-conscious, but others weren’t too concerned (see also section on emotions). Changes to the skin after eczema didn’t always look like typical scars and could come in a variety of forms. Areas of skin can be a different colour (redder, paler or darker), shiny, raised, “hardened” or patterned with patches. Scarring really affected Hazel, Vicky and Sarah who had all developed chickenpox which interacted with their eczema. Other people hadn’t noticed any long-lasting changes left by eczema or found that they could only see a difference if, for example, they had been tanning.


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