Living with eczema means you’re very familiar with the challenges of having inflamed, itchy, dry skin. What you might not expect is the jarring stares and the self-conscious feelings that may pop up when you have a visible flare-up on your skin. Maybe you’ve even fielded your share of inappropriate questions, like, “Is eczema contagious?”
Unfortunately, sometimes people do assume this skin condition is transmissible and act with that in mind, Joshua Zeichner, MD, a New York City–based board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tells SELF. “They see someone with a rash and stay away for fear that they will catch it,” he says.
“This societal misconception is at least partially rooted in history,” Jeffrey M. Cohen, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine, tells SELF. “Before doctors had the ability to tell the difference between contagious and non-contagious rashes, there was concern that touching a rash could result in the spread.”
As it turns out, though, that’s completely unnecessary. Here’s what you should know.
First, let’s dig into the basics of what eczema is.
Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, has the capacity to make your skin itchy, inflamed, and basically as dry as the sands of hell. Common symptoms include thick, cracked, scaly skin and red or brownish-gray patches that can show up anywhere but are most likely to develop on your hands, feet, ankles, wrists, neck, upper chest, eyelids, and inside the bends of your elbows and knees, according to the Mayo Clinic. Eczema can also manifest as weepy little bumps that might get all crusty when you scratch them, and the scratching itself can leave you with raw, tender, swollen skin.
If you have eczema, you might experience flare-ups of your symptoms sandwiched in between periods when your skin doesn’t bother you much. While eczema can be manageable, mainly through moisturizers to combat itching and drugs to fight inflammation and infections in open sores or cracked skin, there’s no cure for the condition.
Because of the visible-to-everyone nature of eczema, living with it can be very stigmatizing, Matthew Lewis, MD, MPH, clinical associate professor of dermatology at Stanford Hospital and Clinics, tells SELF. “It can be embarrassing for people to be out in public with rashes on their skin that others mistake for a contagious infection, especially for younger people like kids and teenagers.”
So is eczema contagious or not?
Though researchers don’t yet know all the reasons someone may develop eczema, they are certain it’s not contagious. Let’s just reiterate: “Spending time with or touching someone with eczema cannot give you eczema, and there is no way for the condition to spread from one person to another,” says Dr. Cohen.
What they do know is there’s likely a genetic link, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. In an older study, researchers identified several altered genes which may change the way the skin or immune system functions in people with eczema.1 At its core, eczema comes down to a problem with a person’s skin barrier, which is meant to offer protection from outside threats like bacteria, irritants, and allergens, according to the Mayo Clinic. The skin’s loss of barrier function, which is essentially the “glue” of the skin, makes it more prone to dryness. And dry, weakened skin can cause the immune system to activate in a person with eczema, which can lead to inflammation when they are exposed to their unique triggers, says Dr. Lewis. That said, it’s important to also note that inflammation isn’t spreadable. “You can have skin that’s inflamed without truly being infected [by something contagious],” he says.