Eczema is not a contagious condition. It’s a result of an overactivation of the immune system. However, misperceptions about its causes can be just as painful as its flare-ups — both physically and socially. People with eczema can experience social exclusion, often because others mistakenly think that it’s possible to spread eczema, since it can look like ringworm or other infectious rashes.
A MyEczemaTeam member recalled feeling self-conscious about others’ opinions: “The blisters and the dark patches inside my palms are making me feel like I have alligator skin — and people think I’m contagious.” Another member said, “I sometimes feel a bit embarrassed because I don’t want others to think I have lice.”
One member reported that even medical practitioners were ignorant about their daughter’s eczema: “If only the school nurse would understand that my little girl isn’t contagious. They’ve medically excluded her from school twice since February until I had doctors’ notes proving she wasn’t.”
To combat misperceptions about eczema, it’s important to understand what a contagious disease is — and why eczema is not contagious.
Contagious diseases spread from person to person in various ways. Some diseases, such as colds and the flu, are spread through the air. Others are spread by skin-to-skin contact, contact with the body’s mucous membranes, or contact with contaminated surfaces. For example, cold sores (herpes simplex) are spread through kissing or skin-to-skin contact. Lice are spread by sharing combs. Other diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis B and C, can be transmitted through blood or bodily fluids.
Eczema is an autoimmune condition. Although the exact causes of eczema are unknown, researchers know the condition develops when the immune system becomes activated or sensitized to allergens. This starts an inflammatory process that affects the skin.
Both environmental and genetic factors influence eczema development. People with a family history of eczema are more likely to develop the condition. There is evidence that genetic variants can cause low levels of a protein called filaggrin, which helps protect the skin. People who are prone to food allergies and asthma (also immune conditions) are also more likely to develop eczema.
Because eczema is an immune system reaction, it is not a contagious disease. You cannot catch eczema by standing near a person with eczema, touching a person with eczema, or through intimate contact with someone with eczema. It is impossible to give eczema to another person.
A few contagious skin diseases mimic some of the symptoms of eczema. However, there are telltale signs that can help you and your health care providers determine if you have eczema or one of these contagious conditions.
Scabies is caused by microscopic mites that burrow under the skin. Scabies tends to affect areas of the body that are not affected by eczema, such as the underarms, buttocks, and genitals. In infants with scabies, small lesions appear on the soles of the feet. Unlike eczema, scabies does not respond to topical corticosteroids like hydrocortisone. In addition, because scabies is highly contagious, other members of your household are likely to report itchiness as well.
Mycosis, or ringworm, is another disease that looks like eczema but is caused by a contagion — in this case, a fungus. As with scabies, mycosis usually affects different parts of the body than eczema, like the underarms and genitals. It can also appear all over the body in small patches. Mycosis patches tend to be round, with clear edges, unlike eczema patches. Mycosis also does not respond to topical corticosteroids.
Even though eczema is not contagious itself, having eczema can make it easier to develop other contagious conditions. These conditions are called secondary infections. Some people who have eczema have low levels of filaggrin, so their skin does not have the usual protective barrier. That makes it easier for infectious bacteria and viruses to enter the skin. In addition, itchy skin caused by eczema is tempting to scratch — and fingers and fingernails can introduce harmful organisms into broken, inflamed skin.
Signs of bacterial infection include fluid oozing from affected skin, yellow crusting on the skin, yellow-white spots, swollen and sore skin, and fever. You might feel like you have the flu or notice swollen lymph nodes, which are signs of infection. Bacterial infection may also reduce the effectiveness of your usual eczema treatments. Your health care provider can prescribe antibiotics to control and eliminate the infection, as well as other medications to reduce inflammation.
Eczema can also become infected with herpes simplex — the same virus that causes cold sores. This condition is called eczema herpeticum, and it can be serious. Herpes simplex creates groups of small blisters on eczema-affected skin. The blisters then pop, leaving behind shallow, open lesions. This can rapidly worsen your already sensitive skin and make it very painful. Like a bacterial infection, eczema herpeticum can make you feel feverish and as if you have the flu. Doctors can prescribe antiviral drugs to treat eczema herpeticum. Read more about eczema herpeticum.
Other viruses that can lead to warts and molluscum can also more easily penetrate skin affected by eczema.
To prevent developing contagious infections, practice good hygiene habits as part of your skin care routine. Wash your hands before applying cleansers or moisturizers. If you use a topical cream or lotion that comes in a tub, don’t put your fingers directly into the tub. This can spread infectious agents. Instead, scoop out the cream or lotion using a spoon and wash the spoon between uses. If you’re using a lotion with a pump dispenser, avoid touching the nozzle opening.
If you do develop a contagious skin infection, avoid sharing bedding, towels, and clothing.
Even though you know that your eczema isn’t contagious, it takes courage to talk about it with other people. MyEczemaTeam members have shared recommendations on educating others about eczema.
When one MyEczemaTeam member was concerned about classmates teasing their child, another member advised them to “stress that it is not contagious. Kids of younger ages love to learn, help, and educate others. Give the teacher and nurse permission to answer questions about your child’s condition.” Another MyEczemaTeam member had some advice on dealing with grown-ups: “As for rude adults, I tend to ask if they’d like a picture!”
On MyEczemaTeam, over 37,000 people living with eczema come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with eczema.
Have you dealt with people who thought that eczema was contagious? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.