Eczema on your hands can be uncomfortable and frustrating. Dermatologists weigh in on how to ease symptoms like itchy, red skin.
You've probably heard of "dishpan hands," a rash that occurs from dipping hands too often in a kitchen sink filled with soapy water. When most people use this term, however, they're usually talking about hand eczema, also known as hand dermatitis. More than 30 million people in the U.S. have some form of eczema, a skin condition that causes red, itchy patches on the skin. Eczema can appear anywhere on the body, but it's particularly bothersome when it shows up on the hands.
"[Hand eczema] has a huge impact on people’s lives when it’s severe or even in mild cases," says Ross S. Levy, MD, chief of dermatology at Northern Westchester Hospital Center in Mount Kisco, N.Y.
Although experts aren't sure exactly what causes eczema, most believe it's likely a combination of a person's environment and genetics. In the most common type, atopic dermatitis, the immune system is triggered by something and goes into overdrive, leading to sensitive, dry skin. The problem doesn't go away and is treatable, although incurable. Certain things, such as allergens in food, dust exposure, or weather extremes, can make symptoms worse. Like eczema that appears elsewhere on the body, symptoms of hand eczema can include red, itchy, scaly, painful hands that are dry and chapped. Blood or pus may ooze from cracks and blisters on the skin.
"It could happen easily from washing your hands regularly or changes in temperature, people who are in a cold environment," says Gil Yosipovitch, MD, professor of dermatology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and author of Living with Itch ($19; amazon.com). "These are very common things that can happen to a lot of people."
Another type of hand eczema, called contact dermatitis, is linked to direct exposure to an irritating substance such as chemicals. Professionals whose hands often come in contact with chemicals are particularly at risk, such as hairdressers, cleaners, plumbers, and construction workers, as well as those who frequently wash their hands throughout the day, such as nurses.
Yet another type of hand eczema is dyshidrotic eczema. It can cause itchy blisters on the hands, fingers, feet, and toes. It’s often triggered by stress, moisture, and contact with certain metals such as nickel or cobalt.
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The key to both preventing and treating hand eczema is to find out what triggers it and avoid those triggers whenever possible. Here, a few smart strategies that may help keep hand eczema at bay. It's also a good idea to see a dermatologist, who may suggest stronger topical or other treatments to treat underlying inflammation, depending on your symptoms.
• Limit contact with water, especially water that is hot and soapy. Wash dishes in a dishwasher if possible and clean hands with lukewarm water and fragrance-free soap.
• Apply a moisturizer right after cleaning hands and regularly throughout the day. "[Moisturizing] the skin is extremely important," says Dr. Yosipovitch. "It should be part of a daily routine." Look for a brand that contains humectants or emollients.
• Stay away from antibacterial soaps. "These irritate the skin more than giving benefit," says Dr. Yosipovitch. Waterless cleansers are more likely to contain alcohol and chemicals that may trigger a flare.
• Take care of any breaks or cuts on the skin before chemicals have a chance to come into contact with them and cause irritation.