Eczema is a term to describe any recurring condition of the skin that is characterized by rash, dryness, inflammation and itching. Eczema is rarely fatal, but it is incurable and can be dehabilitating during outbreaks. A more technical and appropriate name to describe the condition to separate it from others is atopic dermatitis.
Although the condition has been recognized for decades, the condition is still poorly understood. Although it resembles an allergic reaction, allergy testing is usually fruitless (and rules out the condition if a patient does show an allergy).
Treatment focusses on helping patients deal with the symptoms. The most problematic is itching, which can lead to habitual scratching that can damage the skin all on its own. Steroids, administered either orally or with a topical creme can provide relief of symptoms and lessen the severity of outbreaks. However, even moisturizer and anti-itch cremes can be helpful.
Interestingly, topical steroids used to treat eczema can also cause a type of eczema known as Red Skin Syndrome, or "steroid induced eczema". When patients try to quit using steroid creams their skin goes through a painful rebound phase with burning, oozing skin, creating a perpetual cycle necessitating stronger and stronger creams.
One the most famous sufferers of the condition was Admiral William Halsey Jr., who missed the Battle of Midway because he had to be hospitalized after an outbreak.
Recent research has shown eczema sufferers often share common genetic characteristics. However, persons without these characteristics can have the condition, and not all persons with the characteristics get the condition. One theory is that typical Western hygiene practices cause the immune system to overreact and occasionally attack healthy skin cells.