Can Eczema Spread After Scratching?

Eczema, a common condition that causes itchy and inflamed skin, can be quite bothersome. But have you ever wondered if scratching at your eczema patches can actually make it spread? In this article, we’ll discuss whether there is any truth to this belief and delve into the factors that may contribute to the spread of eczema. So if you’ve been scratching away at those itchy spots, stick around to find out the answer!


What is Eczema?

Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a common chronic skin condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It is characterized by red, itchy, and inflamed skin patches that can appear anywhere on the body. Eczema can be a source of great discomfort and frustration, as it often leads to intense itching and a desire to scratch the affected areas.

What causes Eczema?

While the exact cause of eczema is unknown, researchers believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors play a significant role in its development. People with a family history of eczema, asthma, or hay fever are more likely to develop the condition. Additionally, certain environmental triggers such as dry weather, irritants in skincare products, and exposure to allergens can exacerbate eczema symptoms.

Effects of scratching on Eczema

Itching is a common symptom of eczema, and scratching the affected areas may provide temporary relief. However, constant scratching can have detrimental effects on the skin and worsen the condition. When you scratch eczema-prone skin, it can lead to intensified itching, disruption of the skin barrier, increased inflammation, and an elevated risk of infection. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the implications of scratching and take steps to prevent it.

Understanding Eczema

Definition and types of Eczema

Eczema is a chronic inflammatory skin condition characterized by red, itchy, and inflamed patches of skin. There are several types of eczema, including atopic dermatitis (the most common type), contact dermatitis, nummular eczema, and seborrheic dermatitis. Each type of eczema has unique characteristics, but they all share the common feature of irritated and inflamed skin.

Common symptoms of Eczema

Eczema presents a range of symptoms that can vary in severity from person to person. Some of the most common symptoms include dry and sensitive skin, intense itching, red or brownish-gray patches of skin, small bumps that can ooze or crust over, thickened or scaly skin, and raw and sensitive skin from scratching. These symptoms can significantly impact one’s quality of life, leading to discomfort, frustration, and self-consciousness.

How Eczema affects the skin

Eczema affects the skin by causing inflammation and impairing the skin’s natural barrier function. In individuals with eczema, the skin’s ability to retain moisture is compromised, leading to dryness and increased susceptibility to irritants. The inflammatory response in eczema-prone skin triggers itching, redness, and swelling, which further compromise the skin’s integrity. It is essential to manage eczema effectively to maintain a healthy skin barrier and minimize symptoms.

Causes of Eczema

Genetic factors

Genetic factors play a significant role in the development of eczema. If you have a family history of eczema, asthma, or hay fever, you are more likely to develop eczema yourself. Certain genes are associated with an increased risk of developing atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema. However, having these genes does not guarantee that an individual will develop the condition, as environmental factors also play a crucial role.

Environmental triggers

Environmental factors can trigger or exacerbate eczema symptoms. Dry weather, low humidity, and exposure to irritants such as harsh soaps, fragrances, and chemicals can worsen eczema-prone skin. Allergens such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and certain foods can also trigger eczema flare-ups in susceptible individuals. Identifying and avoiding these environmental triggers can help manage eczema effectively.

Immune system dysfunction

Eczema is associated with immune system dysfunction, particularly an overactive response in the skin. In individuals with eczema, the immune system overreacts to certain triggers, leading to inflammation and the characteristic symptoms of eczema. Understanding and addressing the underlying immune system dysfunction is crucial in managing and treating eczema effectively.

Allergies and irritants

Allergies and irritants can trigger or exacerbate eczema symptoms. Common allergens include certain foods, pollen, mold, dust mites, and animal dander. Irritants can include harsh soaps, perfumes, detergents, and chemicals. It is essential to identify and avoid allergens and irritants that may trigger an eczema flare-up. Consulting with a healthcare professional or allergist can help determine specific triggers and develop a personalized management plan.

Effects of Scratching Eczema

Intensifying itching

Scratching eczema-prone skin may provide temporary relief, but it can intensify itching in the long run. Scratching activates nerve fibers in the skin, releasing itch-inducing chemicals. This creates a vicious cycle of itching and scratching, leading to more intense and prolonged itching.

Skin barrier disruption

The constant scratching of eczema patches can disrupt the skin’s natural barrier, which acts as a protective barrier against external irritants and allergens. When the skin barrier is compromised, it becomes more susceptible to further damage from irritants, allergens, and bacteria. This can worsen eczema symptoms and increase the risk of infection.

Increased inflammation

Scratching eczema-prone skin can trigger an inflammatory response in the body, leading to increased redness, swelling, and discomfort. The immune response to scratching can further exacerbate the underlying inflammation and worsen the overall severity of eczema.

Risk of infection

Due to the compromised skin barrier and increased inflammation, there is an elevated risk of developing bacterial, viral, or fungal infections in areas affected by eczema. Scratching can introduce bacteria from the nails or surrounding environment into the broken skin, leading to infections that require medical intervention.

Spread of Eczema

Transmission through direct contact

Eczema is not a contagious condition, so you cannot “catch” it from someone with eczema. However, it is possible for eczema to spread from one area of the body to another through direct contact. For example, scratching an eczema patch and then touching another area of the body can transfer the eczema-causing factors and trigger new patches to develop.

Transfer via contaminated objects

Eczema-causing factors can be present on objects and surfaces, and if these objects come into contact with the skin, they can trigger or worsen eczema symptoms. It is important to avoid sharing personal items such as clothing, towels, or bedding with someone who has eczema to minimize the risk of contamination.

Potential for self-spread

Eczema can also spread through self-inoculation, where scratching an existing patch of eczema and then scratching another part of the body can transfer the eczema-causing factors. This self-spread can result in the development of new patches in previously unaffected areas.

Factors influencing spread

Several factors can influence the spread of eczema, including the severity of the condition, the frequency and intensity of scratching, the presence of infections or open wounds, and individual skin characteristics. It is crucial to manage and treat eczema effectively to minimize the risk of spread and maintain healthy skin.

Preventing the Spread of Eczema

Keeping the affected area clean

Maintaining good hygiene is essential in preventing the spread of eczema. Regularly washing the affected areas with mild, fragrance-free cleansers and tepid water can help remove irritants and bacteria. It is important to pat the skin dry gently and avoid excessive rubbing, as this can further irritate the skin.

Avoiding excessive scratching

Minimizing scratching is crucial in preventing the spread of eczema. It can be challenging to resist the urge to scratch, but finding alternative ways to relieve itching, such as applying cold compresses, using topical anti-itch creams, or practicing relaxation techniques, can help reduce the need to scratch.

Use of antihistamines and moisturizers

Antihistamines can help control itching associated with eczema and reduce the risk of scratching. They work by blocking the release of histamine, a chemical that triggers itching. Additionally, regularly moisturizing the skin with thick emollients or moisturizers helps hydrate the skin and maintain its integrity, reducing the risk of itching and further damage.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle can contribute to managing eczema and preventing its spread. Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, managing stress levels, and getting enough sleep can support overall skin health and reduce the likelihood of eczema flare-ups. It is important to consult with a healthcare professional for personalized lifestyle recommendations.

Treatment for Eczema

Topical corticosteroids

Topical corticosteroids are commonly prescribed to manage eczema symptoms. They work by reducing inflammation and relieving itching, redness, and swelling. Corticosteroids come in different strengths, and the specific type and potency will depend on the severity of the eczema. It is important to follow the healthcare professional’s instructions regarding the appropriate use of corticosteroids.


Immunomodulators, also known as calcineurin inhibitors, are an alternative treatment option for eczema. They work by suppressing the immune response in the skin, reducing inflammation and alleviating eczema symptoms. Immunomodulators are typically prescribed for moderate to severe eczema and are used when other treatments have not provided sufficient relief.

Emollients and moisturizers

Emollients and moisturizers are key components of eczema management. They help hydrate the skin, restore the skin’s natural barrier function, and reduce dryness and itching. Emollients and moisturizers should be applied regularly, especially after bathing or showering, to lock in moisture and keep the skin hydrated.

Antibiotics for secondary infections

In cases where eczema has become infected, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat the bacterial infection. Signs of infection include increased redness, warmth, swelling, pus-filled blisters, or a worsening of symptoms. It is important to seek medical attention if signs of infection are present or if the eczema is not responding to regular treatment.

Complications of Eczema

Bacterial skin infections

One of the potential complications of eczema is the development of bacterial skin infections. The compromised skin barrier and constant scratching provide an entry point for bacteria, leading to redness, swelling, pain, and the formation of pus. Prompt treatment with appropriate antibiotics is necessary to prevent the infection from spreading.

Chronic itch-scratch cycle

The itch-scratch cycle refers to the pattern of itching, scratching, and further itching that can become habitual in individuals with eczema. This cycle can be challenging to break and can lead to chronic scratching, skin damage, and increased inflammation. Breaking the itch-scratch cycle is crucial in managing and controlling eczema.

Psychological impact

Living with eczema can have a significant psychological impact, affecting one’s self-esteem and overall well-being. The visibility of eczema on the skin and the chronic nature of the condition may lead to feelings of self-consciousness, embarrassment, and frustration. Seeking emotional support from loved ones, support groups, or mental health professionals can be beneficial in navigating the psychological impact of eczema.

Sleep disturbances

Eczema can disrupt sleep due to intense itching, discomfort, and the need to scratch. Poor sleep quality can further exacerbate eczema symptoms and trigger flare-ups. Establishing a bedtime routine, implementing relaxation techniques, and using breathable fabrics in bedding can help improve sleep quality and reduce eczema-related sleep disturbances.

Managing Eczema Symptoms

Avoiding triggers

Identifying and avoiding triggers is crucial in managing eczema symptoms. Keep a record of activities, foods, products, or environmental factors that may trigger or worsen eczema flare-ups. Once identified, take steps to minimize exposure to these triggers and make necessary adjustments to lifestyle or skincare routines.

Implementing a skincare routine

A consistent skincare routine is essential in managing eczema. This includes gentle cleansing with mild, fragrance-free products, regular moisturizing to maintain skin hydration, and the use of prescribed treatments as directed by a healthcare professional. It is important to avoid harsh soaps, fragrances, and irritating skincare ingredients that can exacerbate eczema symptoms.

Wearing soft fabrics

Choosing the right clothing materials can make a difference in managing eczema symptoms. Soft, breathable fabrics such as cotton and silk are gentle on the skin and reduce friction and irritation. Avoid rough, scratchy fabrics, tight clothing, and synthetic materials that can trap heat and moisture, leading to increased itching and discomfort.

Seeking emotional support

Living with eczema can be emotionally challenging, and seeking emotional support is essential in managing the condition. Reach out to loved ones, friends, or support groups who can provide understanding, empathy, and encouragement. Additionally, consider consulting with a mental health professional who specializes in chronic skin conditions to address the emotional impact of eczema.


Eczema is a common chronic skin condition that can be managed effectively with proper understanding, management, and treatment. Avoiding triggers, implementing a skincare routine, practicing good hygiene, and seeking medical guidance can help control symptoms and improve quality of life. Understanding the effects of scratching and taking steps to prevent its occurrence can minimize the spread of eczema and promote optimal skin health. By actively managing eczema and seeking support, individuals can minimize the impact of this condition and improve their overall well-being.