Hand eczema, also called hand dermatitis, is an inflammatory skin condition. It forms swollen, itchy, scaly, discolored rashes on the hands and fingers. The skin may blister and crack, and this can be painful.

Hand eczema is fairly common. It affects around 10% of people in the United States and can develop at any age. It may be acute, lasting only a short time, or chronic, persisting throughout a person’s life.

Hand eczema is more common in people with a history of atopic eczema and people in frequent contact with water and chemicals. This may include hairdressers, cleaners, chefs, and healthcare professionals, for example.

Hand eczema is not contagious, meaning that it does not pass from person to person. It can interfere with daily activities, and it can cause a person to feel self-conscious. Stress and exposure to irritants and external allergens can trigger or worsen it.

Keep reading to learn more about the causes and symptoms of hand eczema and when to see a doctor. We also look into prevention tips and treatment options.

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The symptoms can differ from person to person, depending on their age, medical history, and various life factors. The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) reports that dry, chapped skin is often the first symptom that leads to a diagnosis.

Other common symptoms of hand eczema include:

  • bleeding
  • cracking
  • dryness
  • itchiness
  • inflammation
  • blisters
  • dark or discolored patches
  • a burning sensation
  • swelling
  • pustules
  • pain
  • bleeding or oozing from breaks in the skin

“Eczema” refers to a group of skin disorders that cause inflamed, itchy, irritated skin. It tends to stem from an overreactive immune system. When something triggers the immune system to overreact, the rashes form.

A 2016 study found that people with eczema may be more prone to developing skin infections, such as those that cause warts, athlete’s foot, and cold sores. This, the researchers note, is because the body does not have enough filaggrin, a protein that maintains a protective skin barrier.

The cause of eczema is unknown. Researchers believe that genetic and environmental factors are involved. We explore some factors that can trigger or worsen hand eczema below.

Chemicals and irritants

People whose work requires continuous exposure to water, solvents, detergents, other chemicals, heat, cold, or friction are more likely to develop eczema on their hands. It tends to be more common in healthcare workers, hair dressers, cleaners, construction workers, cooks, and people who work in manufacturing, for example.

Water

As the AAD reports frequently washing and drying the hands may increase the risk of developing hand eczema.

Even when a person dries their hands, some water remains on the skin. As this evaporates, it reduce the skin’s natural oils. Continually washing with hot water can lead to a further decrease in these oils and trigger eczema. A person should opt for lukewarm water instead.

In addition, continually washing the hands and having a weakened skin barrier can make a person more prone to developing an allergy to something they come into contact with.

Stress

When a person is experiencing stress, the body produces two hormones called cortisol and epinephrine. These suppress the immune system and cause skin inflammation.

Sometimes high levels of stress can cause a person to develop dyshidrotic eczema. This is a common form of eczema that causes itchy blisters on the skin.

Cold temperatures and dehydration

Dry air and abrupt temperature changes in winter can dehydrate the skin and trigger eczema flares. This happens, for example, when people move from the cold outdoors to a space with indoor heating and do not remove their layers. The air from heaters can dry the skin further.

There is no cure for chronic hand eczema, and the symptoms can be painful and distracting. Sometimes, rashes take weeks to disappear.

A key initial step is to discover the triggering irritants or allergens and avoid them. A healthcare professional can administer a patch test to help identify these triggers.

They can also recommend a treatment plan, considering the person’s age, symptoms, and medical history.

Below are some medications and natural remedies that doctors may recommend for hand eczema.

Medications

Some medications that can help treat hand eczema include:

  • Topical corticosteroids: These creams are a common treatment option for people with many types of eczema. However, some are highly potent and can cause unwanted side effects, such as skin thinning. A person should only use these medications as prescribed.
  • Calcineurin inhibitors: These can suppress the immune system to help reduce inflammation and itchiness. Unlike topical corticosteroids, they do not cause skin thinning or similar side effects.
  • Antihistamine tablets: Some people take sedating antihistamines to help reduce the itchiness. These can cause drowsiness and impaired coordination, so a doctor may recommend only taking them before bed.
  • Topical antibiotics: These can treat open fissures and bacterial infections associated with hand eczema. However, over-the-counter antibiotics can trigger eczema, so it is important to check with a doctor first.
  • UV therapy: This helps reduce itchiness and inflammation of moderate hand eczema in children and adults.
  • Antibacterial ointments: These can help treat infections that stem from hand eczema. A person applies them to wounds and cracked skin.
  • Petroleum- or glycerin-based moisturizers: These can help heal cracked skin on the hands. First, soak the hands in water, then pat them dry and apply the moisturizer. Wear gloves for the next 30 minutes.
  • Biologics: Manufacturers make these drugs from complex molecules derived from living organisms. Those that treat eczema include gusacitinib and dupilumab.

Natural remedies

The following natural remedies may help with some symptoms of hand eczema:

  • Wet compresses: These can reduce inflammation and prevent itchiness.
  • Aloe vera gel: Aloe vera has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. A 2019 study found that it also helps wounds heal.
  • Honey: A 2020 mini-review reported on studies that showed how honey, including Manuka honey, helped reduce eczema lesions and heal burns and wounds.
  • Moisturizing the skin regularly: This relieves dryness and supports the skin barrier, which can help prevent infection.
  • coconut oil: This contains lauric acid, which can help fight off bacteria and viruses. A person might use coconut oil as a moisturizer.
  • Sunflower oil: This has anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties. It also works as a moisturizer when a person applies it to wet skin, particularly after bathing.
  • Oatmeal baths: People have been using oatmeal as a skin protectant for centuries. Oatmeal baths can reduce skin itchiness and discomfort.
  • Fish oil supplements: Though overall data is limited, a 2016 study found that consuming omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish such as salmon and sardines can soothe inflamed skin.

A doctor may recommend these tips to help prevent ezcema flares:

  • avoiding allergens and irritants
  • wearing gloves when washing the dishes
  • using mild soaps and detergents without perfumes
  • removing rings when washing the hands
  • using petroleum jelly to protect the skin
  • using cotton gloves in winter to prevent dry and chapped skin
  • applying moisturizer after washing the hands
  • using a humidifier at home to prevent skin dryness and itchiness
  • bathing and showering in warm, not hot, water
  • applying sunscreen to protect exposed skin
  • staying hydrated
  • having a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods, such as vegetables, fish, beans, and leafy greens

For children, it is important to help them manage their eczema and keep the skin moisturized all year round.

Contact a doctor if hand eczema symptoms are hard to manage. If the current treatment plan is ineffective, a doctor can recommend other approaches.

It is especially important to receive professional care if an area of eczema becomes infected.

Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that can develop at any age. It can cause itchy blisters, rashes, cracking, and inflammation on the hands and elsewhere.

It is not contagious. While there is no cure, medications and natural remedies can help soothe the inflammation and treat or prevent infection and flares. A dermatologist or another doctor can recommend a treatment plan.