Eczema, also known as atopic eczema or atopic dermatitis, is an inflammatory skin disease. It is caused by an overactive immune system and compromised skin barrier.
Many people with eczema also have other health conditions that are often related to an overactive, sensitive immune system. Some of these conditions may have existed before the eczema diagnosis, but others may develop later as a result of the eczema or its treatments.
When someone has multiple health conditions at the same time, these conditions are known as comorbidities. When someone has a medical problem resulting from a disease that makes treatment more difficult, it is known as a complication. In people with eczema, having a comorbidity can sometimes complicate eczema treatment and make a person more sick.
Children, adolescents, and adults with eczema are all more likely than their peers to have comorbidities. Plus, the more severe someone’s eczema symptoms are, the more likely they are to have worse health and to visit the doctor more often.
As many as 3 out of 5 people with eczema go on to develop asthma or allergic rhinitis (seasonal allergies). In addition, 3 out of 10 people with eczema have food allergies.
Eczema, allergies, and asthma are all related atopic diseases (allergic disorders) caused by the overactivity of the immune system. Normally, the immune system attacks germs and foreign particles while leaving the body’s healthy tissues alone.
However, in atopic diseases, the immune system mistakenly becomes activated by other substances called allergens:
These conditions often occur in a specific order. A person typically develops eczema first, and is then diagnosed with food allergies, seasonal allergies, and finally asthma. Together, this pattern is called the “atopic march” or “atopic triad.”
The atopic march doesn’t always occur in this exact pattern. Some people with eczema do not develop allergies or asthma. A person may also develop allergies or asthma before getting eczema.
If you or your child has eczema, it may help to watch for symptoms of other immune-related conditions. Talk to your doctor if you notice any health changes:
Learn more about how eczema, allergies, and asthma are connected.
Eczema has also been linked to several other conditions that also affect the immune system. Autoimmune disorders are conditions in which the immune system attacks the body’s normal tissue. Eczema leads to an increased risk of developing:
One of the main purposes of the skin is to protect the body by keeping out germs. Eczema damages the skin barrier, leading to wounds and cracks in the skin. This increases the risk that bacteria, fungi, or viruses will enter the body and cause an infection. In particular, people with eczema are at risk of infections from Staphylococcus aureus, a type of bacteria.
If you have eczema, you may need to take extra steps to help prevent skin infections:
Some people with eczema develop eye conditions. These may include:
To protect your eyes, try not to touch them or rub them. If you notice any eye or vision changes, talk to your dermatologist or ophthalmologist (eye doctor).
Learn more about treating eczema around your eyes.
Children with eczema, allergies, or asthma have a slightly higher chance of developing seizures. The more immune conditions a child has, the more likely seizures become. It’s not entirely clear what causes epilepsy (a seizure disorder), but researchers believe that inflammation may help trigger it in some cases.
An eczema diagnosis can make it more likely that a child will develop anemia (low levels of red blood cells). Anemia can cause extreme tiredness and weakness, dizziness, pale skin, shortness of breath, an irregular heart rhythm, and headaches.
Some research has found that people with eczema are more likely to develop lymphoma, a blood cancer that affects the immune cells. It’s possible that the inflammation seen in eczema can cause cells to turn cancerous. Immunosuppressive eczema treatments like cyclosporine may slightly increase cancer risk.
Other studies have found that people with eczema are actually less likely to develop other blood cancers like acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Researchers haven’t found any link between eczema and acute myeloid leukemia.
Eczema can lead to weaker bones for both children and adults. People with eczema may be more likely to experience broken bones. Doctors think that bone problems often occur as a complication of taking corticosteroids, a common eczema treatment.
If you or your child is taking steroid medications for eczema, ask your doctor about potential long-term health risks. You can help keep the bones strong by eating foods with high levels of calcium and vitamin D, taking calcium or vitamin D supplements, and getting regular physical activity. Researchers are also developing medications for atopic dermatitis that do not contain steroids, which could lead to fewer complications.
Eczema may lead people to develop heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, obesity, and diabetes. This may be partly because people with eczema are more likely to have lifestyle factors that can lead to heart disease, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and getting less physical activity. Also, certain medications used to treat atopic dermatitis can have side effects on the heart.
Whether eczema actually raises the risk of heart disease itself is less clear. Some studies have found that people with eczema are more likely to experience heart disease or stroke. People with more severe atopic dermatitis, or who had the condition for a long period of time, had the highest risk.
However, other studies have not found a link between eczema and heart problems. Researchers aren’t entirely sure whether eczema puts a person at risk for heart disease.
People with eczema are more likely to develop mental or behavioral disorders, including anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Doctors don’t know exactly how eczema can cause mental health issues. Some possibilities include:
Mental health support can come in several forms. Some people with eczema choose to see a counselor or therapist. Others may participate in a support group. Doctors may also recommend medication such as antidepressants.
Learn more about how eczema can affect your mental health.
Often, eczema occurs on its own. However, some people may develop skin problems as a result of another disorder. Health conditions that may lead to eczema include:
Comorbidities can cause additional strain for people with eczema. They can lead to worse overall health and increased health care costs.
If you have other health conditions, it is important to work with your doctor to make sure these other issues are also being treated. Managing comorbidities may improve your health and lead to a better quality of life.