Is It Eczema or Something Else? 5 Clear Signs to Never Ignore

Updated: Oct. 13, 2020

As many as 10 percent of U.S. adults and children have eczema, making it one of the most common skin conditions. It's also one of the hardest to recognize: Here's how to tell eczema from other skin issues.

woman with rash irritated skin eczema
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 Note the location of your dry, sensitive skin

You can get dry, irritated, and sensitive skin from allergies, skin conditions, allergies, or a reaction to something in your environment, like detergents or fragrances. To figure out if you might have eczema, note where the irritation is located on your body, says Jeffrey S. Fromowitz, MD, a dermatologist and the managing partner and medical director at Dermatology of Boca, in Boca Raton, FL. “Eczema or atopic dermatitis tends to favor flexural areas—the fold of the arms, the fold of the wrist, the fold of the neck, and the folds behind the knee,” he says. “That’s where eczema tends to be most prominent and is a fairly clear indication that it’s not just an irritation from fabric or perfume, which tend to be spread across the body.” In the meantime, make sure you’re keeping your skin protected with this trick to moisturize when you’re in the shower.
woman scratching itch arm skin rash
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Do you have an “itch that rashes?”

Intense itching is another common symptom of eczema—but that could also be an allergic reaction or irritation from a new beauty product. So, how do you know the difference? “Again, it’s important to note the location of the intense itch like the severely dry and sensitive skin,” says Dr. Fromowitz. “The biggest indicator is whether the itch develops before or after the presence of a physical rash.” Eczema is known as the rash that itches, because you will likely get an intense itch that precedes the development of a rash. With contact dermatitis, or other forms of rashes, it is often the opposite: The rash appears before you get itchy. Here’s how to tell the difference between eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis.

close up of arm rash spots skin irritation
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Check the shape of your blisters or rash

Developing blisters or peeling skin is uncomfortable and worrisome no matter what the cause. Both eczema in a severe form and dermatitis from poison oak or ivy can blister. (Protect yourself by brushing up on what poison ivy looks like.) The distinction is in the distribution and shape of the blisters, according to Dr. Fromowitz. If you notice these conditions on places like the surface of your arms or legs over a muscle, it’s likely caused by a reaction to a plant as opposed to blisters in the folds where eczema lives. “Also, the shape of the blisters will be different,” he says. Poison ivy rashes tend to be linear lines, while eczema blisters tend to be round and merge together. If it’s only on your hands or feet, it could be dyshidrotic eczema.

male asthmatic with an aerosol inhaler in his hand takes a breath.
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Do you also suffer from asthma or hay fever?

People often mistake the red, inflamed skin of eczema for temporary irritation from clothing, grass, or pets—or acne, allergies, psoriasis, and other skin conditions. The difference will be the duration and pattern of the redness and inflammation. Dr. Fromowitz’s advice: “Ask yourself, how long has it been there, is this the first time it has ever happened, do you have also a history of asthma and allergies, and has anyone else in the family had something like this?” Eczema is part of what doctors call the atopic triad, along with asthma and hay fever. If you suffer from one of those conditions along with red inflamed skin in the flexural areas, then it’s more likely eczema. Also, since the condition is genetic, it’s likely you would have had similar symptoms as a child, and it would be a recurring problem. If this is the first time your skin is reacting this way—or it’s rare—then it’s probably due to an irritation and not eczema. If your skin flares up only when you’re outside, use these 10 tips for protecting your skin from dry air.

Macro dry skin (ichthyosis) detail
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Those scaly areas come with other symptoms

Remember that scaly patches of skin could come from things like psoriasis or contact dermatitis—or it may just be dry skin due to dry weather or dry air in your home. “If you live in a city with allergens and pollutants or use indoor heating, it can simply make your skin dry,” says Dr. Fromowitz. “But, it can also exacerbate eczema if you do have it,” he warns. “To know what’s eczema, check to see if it’s in the folds of your skin, if it’s itchy, figure out how often it occurs, and if you also suffer from asthma or hay fever. You have to look at a bigger picture.” Don’t miss these 10 all-natural psoriasis and eczema treatments.