If you have a patch of skin that is itchy, red, dry and you just can't stop scratching, then you could be suffering from skin flare-up. This is a common name for the skin condition medically referred to as eczema or dermatitis.

Eczema can be incredibly frustrating to live with, but the more you understand about the condition and its triggers, the better you can treat it. This section is designed to help you identify your particular skin condition, and then show you what steps you should be taking to deal with it.

Identify your skin condition

If you are unsure that you have a skin flare-up due to eczema or dermatitis, use the chart below and consult your pharmacist or doctor.

Defining eczema and dermatitis

'Eczema' and 'dermatitis' have similar symptoms characterised by skin flare-up, in which the skin becomes itchy, red and dry. The underlying cause of this is an excessive reaction by the immune system which:

 Causes blood vessels to swell, leading to redness

 Irritates nerve endings, causing itchiness

 Makes skin cells 'leak', resulting in skin swelling and dryness.

In the UK, around 1 in 12 adults suffer from eczema. Sufferers may experience 3-4 episodes per year, lasting on average 28 days (if left untreated), and although it may look unpleasant, eczema/dermatitis is not contagious. Measures can be taken to reduce the frequency and severity of flare-ups, but the skin will always need extra care.

Contact dermatitis

Flare-up can also occur when the skin comes into contact with certain external irritants or allergens. This condition is called contact dermatitis, and can be triggered by a number of different factors.

A key element of eczema and dermatitis is the ‘itch-scratch cycle’, illustrated in the diagram above.

Whenever your skin starts to itch, the temptation is to scratch it. But this will only damage the skin further, stimulating the release of chemicals which lead to increased inflammation - and even more itching.

By treating a skin flare-up quickly, at the first signs of an itch and redness, you can rapidly bring the condition under control before the vicious cycle of itching and scratching begins.