You’re scratching your eczema itch when you notice a strange odor. “What’s that smell?” you wonder. “Is it me?”
The odor might be challenging to describe, but you realize it isn’t a typical body odor you can remedy with deodorants, perfumes, shampoos, or soaps for sensitive skin. It’s a deep-in-your-skin odor that may coincide with your eczema flare-ups.
This article explains what could be causing an odor, such as a burnt smell, after scratching and offers tips for managing these odors. Talk to your health care provider or dermatologist if you notice a new smell or other changes in your health.
“Has anyone’s outbreak ever been so bad you can smell it?” asked one MyEczemaTeam member. “Every time my son has a severe outbreak that oozes, he smells like skin.”
Although researchers know that eczema is a common skin condition affecting more than 31 million Americans, they’re not sure how common it is for people with the condition to produce strange smells associated with the condition.
Several MyEczemaTeam members have said they experience an odor during eczema flares or when they scratch — but many had difficulty describing the smell. “I don’t know how to explain the smell,” said one.
“It doesn’t smell like an infection, and it’s not an overwhelming smell,” said another.
A third said, “The smell is very distinct.”
One MyTeamMember said they notice a smell whenever they have a severe eczema flare-up. Another said it develops if they scratch their itchy skin so intensely that blisters and lesions start oozing and crusting.
Although you might notice an odor when you have an eczema flare, something other than eczema could be causing it.
The National Eczema Association lists common symptoms of eczema, but strange odors aren’t among them. If eczema isn’t producing the smell, where is it coming from?
Some eczema treatments can contribute to body odors.
Topical steroids are a popular and effective treatment for atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, and other types of eczema. They work by calming the inflammation when the immune system overreacts to triggers. However, frequent use of steroid creams or use of very potent creams can increase your risk of bacterial, fungal, and viral infections and delay wound healing. An open wound is susceptible to infection, and infections can cause odors.
Immunosuppressant medications can also contribute to odors. They work by suppressing the immune system to relieve eczema symptoms, but in doing so, they may increase your risk of infection, lead to liver damage, or trigger other health issues associated with body odors. Be sure to talk with your doctor before starting any of these medications that increase your risk of getting infections.
Antihistamine gels, sprays, and other forms work by blocking histamine receptors in the body, keeping them from triggering an immune response that causes an itchy sensation. But antihistamines taken orally can also cause bad breath due to dry mouth.
Adhering to the treatment plan your doctor has outlined for you is essential. If you have concerns about eczema treatments and body odor, talk to your health care provider before stopping treatment or making any changes.
Skin infections are common in people with eczema and — as noted — can cause odors. When the skin barrier is damaged, bacteria and other invaders can enter, causing an infection. The types of infections you might develop with eczema include:
Sometimes the bacteria, fungi, or viruses aren’t causing an infection. Instead, they aren’t in their normal balance to help protect your skin and prevent smells. Many factors can cause this imbalance, including puberty, medications, humidity, and certain deodorants and antiperspirants. Talk with your doctor to discuss any further workup, if needed, and consider asking if a gentle antibacterial soap would be right for you.
If you notice a smell or any weeping from your skin and think you have a skin infection, stay calm and take a deep breath. Most infections are treatable with antibiotics, antifungal creams, or antivirals. Schedule an appointment with your health care provider as soon as possible, and be ready to describe your symptoms so they can help you find relief. If skin infections are a recurring issue for you, ask your doctor for guidance.
Some people with eczema also experience symptoms of hay fever, food allergies, and allergic asthma. If you notice an odor with eczema and your health care provider has ruled out treatments and skin infections as the cause, ask if allergies or your diet could be to blame. Allergy testing, blood work, and a discussion about your eating habits might help identify the cause of your rash or other symptoms. For example, some people report a metallic breath and body odor when following a ketogenic diet — a type of low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet.
If you notice a new body odor, talk to a medical professional to ensure an accurate diagnosis and to rule out serious health issues. Metabolic diseases like diabetes and advanced kidney and liver diseases can also cause a noticeable body odor.
If eczema treatments trigger an unpleasant odor for you, ask your health care provider about alternatives. For example, a topical corticosteroid ointment might effectively control your eczema symptoms, but if it leads to uncomfortable side effects — like a burnt-skin smell — you might decide to explore other treatment options.
With chronic skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, making periodic adjustments to your treatment plan is to be expected. Keep trying until you find the right balance between symptom relief and tolerable side effects.
Taking steps to reduce eczema flare-ups may help prevent you from developing a strange odor. If bacterial, fungal, or viral infections trigger an odor for you, ask your doctor about over-the-counter or prescription medications to treat the affected area, and then ask for help creating an eczema-prevention plan.
Since dry skin can lead to eczema flares, consider showering with warm or lukewarm water rather than hot, and limit showers to once daily. After showering, pat yourself dry instead of rubbing with a towel.
Also, scrubbing your skin too intensely or frequently may lead to skin irritation. Instead, focus on cleaning areas where dirt and sweat accumulate and body odors are more likely to occur, like your armpits, groin area, and skin folds.
You can also mitigate dryness by applying moisturizing lotions or emollients immediately after showering to protect the skin barrier while your skin is still damp.
You are likely already diligent with your skin care and overall health and wellness, but a doctor specializing in dermatology can offer additional insight and suggestions to prevent flare-ups if you’re still unable to get your symptoms under control.
If allergy testing shows that your skin odor isn’t related to eczema, talk to an allergist about potential allergens and how to avoid allergic reactions that can lead to smells. You may need to avoid certain detergents, plants and animals, and other environmental triggers.
If you are following a keto diet or making other food choices that lead to body odors, ask a nutritionist or dietitian to help you develop a healthy and balanced nutrition strategy to heal your body from the inside out.
Discovering why your skin smells burnt after scratching or why you have other odors with eczema may take time. Be patient, and ask for referrals and second opinions. With the right care team and treatment strategy, we hope you find answers and relief.
On MyEczemaTeam — the social network for people with eczema and their loved ones — more than 49,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with eczema.
Does your skin smell burnt after scratching? Have you experienced other skin odors with eczema? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.