Hand eczema, also known as hand dermatitis, is an inflammatory condition that causes itchy blisters and rashes on the palms or fingers. It can be painful, and people may feel self-conscious about it, as it is visible to others.
The condition is fairly widespread, affecting about 10% of people in the United States population, and can occur at any age. It is a chronic condition, meaning that a person will likely have it all of their life. However, symptoms typically come and go throughout a person’s lifetime.
Hand eczema is more common in people with a history of atopic eczema and those who come in frequent contact with water and chemicals. These may include hairdressers, cleaners, chefs, and healthcare professionals.
Hand eczema is not contagious. However, it can interfere with people’s lives, as it may affect their ability to carry out their daily activities.
Keep reading to learn more about the causes and symptoms of hand eczema, as well as treatment, prevention tips, and when to see a doctor.
Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that develops in people with an over-reactive immune system. When a person touches something that can irritate the skin, the immune system produces an inflammatory response, which causes itchiness and redness.
No one knows what causes eczema, but some researchers believe that a combination of genes and environmental factors could lead to inflammation resulting in an allergic reaction.
Some of these causes include:
Chemicals and irritants: People who work with detergents or soap and cement are more likely to develop eczema on their hands. It is common in people working in hairdressing, catering, construction, and engineering.
Water: According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), anything can irritate the skin and cause eczema flares. People that frequently wash and dry their hands are more prone to have hand eczema.
Even when a person dries their hands, some water will remain on the skin. This water will evaporate and reduce the skin’s natural oils.
Using hot water when washing the hands can also cause a decrease in essential oils, which, in turn, can also trigger an eczema flare-up.
Stress: When a person is stressed, the body produces two hormones called cortisol and epinephrine. These suppress the immune system and cause skin inflammation.
Sometimes high levels of stress can lead to dyshidrotic eczema, a common form of eczema that causes itchy blisters on the skin.
Sweating: Sweat contains minerals that can irritate the skin, such as sodium, lead, nickel, and magnesium. When sweat does not dry completely, hot temperatures can cause itching that can result in eczema flare-ups.
Food allergies: Some foods can cause allergies, resulting in eczema flares on the hands. These include dairy products such as milk, eggs, nuts, wheat, and soy products.
Cold temperatures and dehydration: The dry air and abrupt temperature changes in winter can dehydrate the skin and trigger eczema flares. It is more likely to happen when people move from a cold environment to a room with indoor heating and do not remove their layers.
Symptoms of hand eczema vary depending on the individual’s age, lifestyle, and medical history. However, the AAD note that dry and chapped skin is usually the first symptom that doctors diagnose.
Other symptoms include:
- red or dark patches
There is no cure for hand eczema, and symptoms can be painful and distracting. Sometimes, rashes take weeks to disappear. However, doctors can usually suggest a treatment plan depending on the individual’s age, symptoms, and medical history.
Some medications and natural remedies that doctors can recommend to people with hand eczema include the following.
Some of the medications that can treat hand eczema include:
- Topical corticosteroids: Although moisturizers may help treat hand eczema, some individuals may also use topical corticosteroids. Always follow the prescribing instructions when using these medications as they can contain high levels of steroids depending on the severity of the eczema. Due to their strength, they can lead to unwanted side effects, such as skin thinning.
- Antibacterial ointments: These are effective in treating infections. People can apply them to wounds and cracked skin.
- Calcineurin inhibitors: These are not as strong as steroids and do not cause skin thinning. However, people may feel a burning or stinging sensation after applying them to the affected area.
- Antihistamine tablets: People may take sedating antihistamines to treat eczema flares. These may cause drowsiness and impaired coordination, so a doctor may recommend taking them before going to bed.
- Topical antibiotics:These can treat open fissures and bacterial infections. Over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotics could trigger eczema, so it’s safest to follow the doctor’s recommendation before applying the product to the skin.
- Alitretinoin: Alitretinoin belongs to a group of drugs called retinoids, which also includes tretinoin, retinol, acitretin, isotretinoin, and retinal. They are derivatives of vitamin A. So, if a doctor prescribes alitretinoin, people should not take vitamin A supplements.
Adults may use it if their hand eczema is severe and if another treatment has not treated their skin condition. Doctors may recommend using it for up to 6 months, but individuals should not use it during pregnancy.
- Ultraviolet (UV) therapy: This treats moderate hand eczema in both children and adults by exposing the skin to UVA or UVB waves. This treatment helps reduce itchiness and inflammation. However, people may need to visit their doctor’s office for one or two months to improve their skin condition.
The following natural remedies may also help with some of the symptoms that present with hand eczema:
- Applying wet compresses: This reduces inflammation and prevents scratching.
- Applying aloe vera gel to the affected area: Aloe vera has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
A 2019 studyfound that it is also effective in aiding the wound healing process. People with psoriasis may also use aloe vera to ease the discomfort of lesions.
- Honey: A
2020 mini-reviewreported on studies that showed how honey, including Manuka honey, helped reduce lesions from atopic dermatitis, or eczema. The review also states that honey can help treat burns and wounds.
- Moisturizing the skin regularly: This promotes hydration and relieves dryness. Moisturizers act as a barrier and prevent irritants from coming into contact with the skin. People may also use them to prevent a secondary bacterial infection from developing.
- Coconut oil: It speeds up healing and provides soothing relief. The National Eczema Association note that coconut oil contains lauric acid, which can fight bacteria and viruses. However, individuals with hand eczema may also use coconut oil as a moisturizer to reduce the chance of infection. Learn more about coconut oil for eczema here.
- Treating the skin with sunflower seed oil: People may consider applying sunflower oil to their skin if there is a chance of infection, as it has
anti-inflammatory properties. It is effective in retaining moisture when a person uses it on wet skin, preferably after bathing.
- Oatmeal baths: A study in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity claims that people have been using oatmeal as a skin protectant for centuries. It is also effective in treating psoriasis. Oatmeal baths can reduce skin itchiness and discomfort. Individuals may also apply moisturizer afterward to keep their skin hydrated.
- Adding fish oil to their diet: There is limited data on fish oil supplements. However, a
2016 studyfound that omega-3 fatty acids can soothe inflamed skin. Individuals may consider including fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, in their diet.
People can follow a general skincare routine to prevent blisters from forming. It is also important to avoid dry skin in children and help them manage their eczema all year round.
A doctor may advise the following preventive tips:
- wearing gloves when washing the dishes
- using mild soaps and detergents without perfumes
- using petroleum jelly to protect the skin
- using cotton gloves in winter to prevent dry and chapped skin
- applying moisturizer after washing hands
- using a humidifier at home to prevent skin dryness and itchiness
- avoiding hot baths
- applying sunscreen before going out to protect exposed skin
- drinking water to stay hydrated
- eating anti-inflammatory foods such as vegetables, fish, beans, and leafy greens
People should contact a doctor if they cannot manage their hand eczema symptoms or their current treatment plan seems ineffective.
Doctors may recommend other treatment options to prevent further flare-ups.
If a person’s eczema is infected, they will require antibiotics and should also contact a doctor.
Hand eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that can affect both children and adults. It can cause itchy blisters, rashes, cracking, and inflammation.
It is not contagious, and there is no cure for it. However, medications and natural remedies can help soothe inflamed skin, treat infections, and manage flare-ups.
If a person is concerned about their hand eczema, they should contact a doctor or dermatologist, who can advise them on a suitable treatment plan.