5 Things You Should Never Say to Someone With Eczema

No, it's not contagious.

Friends talking
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Dealing with eczema is hard enough on its own. But because the skin condition—which causes an itchy, red, painful rash—is so visible, people with eczema often also have to cope with insensitive comments from those around them. As a result, the condition can take a real emotional toll in addition to the already-frustrating physical symptoms.

"[Eczema] really doesn't help in terms of the patient's emotional wellbeing and confidence," says Gil Yosipovitch, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and author of Living With Itch ($19; amazon.com).

We asked people to weigh in on how you can be more thoughtful when it comes to talking about skin symptoms (if you have to say anything at all). Here, five things you should never say to someone with eczema (or any skin condition, for that matter).

"Is it contagious?"

Karina, 24, a medical student in Brooklyn, N.Y. who has had eczema since she was a child, tells us she was asked this question often growing up. "It's really a frustrating thing when you're a kid, and you don't even understand it much [yourself]," she says. "It's really hard to be confident."

Eczema is not contagious. Although experts don't know exactly what causes this skin condition, most believe a combination of a person's genetics and environment play a role in an abnormal immune reaction that affects the skin. The problem can't be cured, but sometimes avoiding certain things—an allergen or irritating substance—can help keep the dry, sensitive, itchy rash under control. But it cannot be passed from person to person.

"At least it's not ____"

People often think they're reassuring a person with eczema by reminding them how lucky they are that their rash isn't a "more serious" medical condition. But while it's true that eczema won't kill you, this type of comment isn't particularly helpful, Karina says. "What people have to understand is just because it's not life-threatening, doesn't mean that it's totally benign," she explains. "People with eczema can have a really poor quality of life."

For people with chronic, severe eczema in particular, the condition requires a lot of self-care. You need to be constantly mindful of allergens, household items, animals, and other irritants that could cause eczema symptoms to flare up—and treating those symptoms can also be extremely challenging.

"It can have a detrimental impact," says Karina.

"OMG! Were you in a fire? What happened to you?"

Kathy, 59, fromtheAnnapolis, M.D. area, has had eczema all her life, and she remembers being asked this when she was younger—and the insensitive remark has stuck with her ever since. "My face was so red and blotchy," she recalls. "I've never really forgotten [that comment]. It stays with me."

"You should start using antibacterial soap."

Dr. Yosipovitch says his patients will often hear this. But an eczema rash has nothing to do with a lack of cleanliness. And in fact, antibacterial soaps are often too harsh for people with the skin condition, since they can actually aggravate symptoms and make them worse. Instead, people with eczema should use gentle, fragrance-free cleansers and moisturizers to soothe dryness and repair the skin's barrier.

"Have you tried this medicine?"

Karina finds this frustrating to hear, and she's even been asked it by doctors. "They're not always as sensitive to it as they should be," she says. There is no magic bullet for eczema, and people with long-term, chronic eczema have likely tried many different remedies. "[People] say, 'Have you tried this medicine?' and it's something you've tried four times before," Karina says.

The weird looks

The hardest thing for many people with eczema to deal with is often not insensitive comments, but rather looks of fear or confusion from strangers when they see the red rash.

"I wish people would understand a little bit better," says Kathy. "Ask me kindly, ask me politely, and show some compassion. It hurts me more than it hurts you to look at it."

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