One of the most uncomfortable feelings in the world is having an intense itch that you long to scratch, even though you know that doing so will only make the problem worse. Feet are no strangers to itchiness, since like the rest of your body they’re covered in skin, which can become irritated. Sometimes this irritation is caused by external things like poison ivy or fungal infections (in the case of athlete’s foot). At other times, it doesn’t really seem to have any good reason to exist – it just does, and it makes you itch like mad. When this happens, your problem might be eczema.

There aren’t really known causes of eczema, although if you or people in your family are prone to allergies, you may be more likely to experience it at some point. The term “eczema” can refer to any time your skin becomes stressed out and gets inflamed (warm, red, and, in this case, itchy). There are some things that may be more likely than others to stress out the skin of your feet and make eczema flare up. For some people, it’s having feet that are sweaty and damp for long periods of time. For other people, emotional stress can cause flare-ups. Others may find that their skin reacts negatively to products with irritating chemicals (no, not the kind of chemicals that tell boring stories at parties – these are chemicals that skin doesn’t much care for). Also, you may wish to note that eczema is not contagious, so if you have it, you don’t need to fret about all those family sock-swapping activities you have planned.

When eczema begins to spread its unwelcome love around the skin of your feet, the first thing you’re likely to notice is that horrible, awful, dreadful itchiness. You may find yourself thinking about scratching it all the time, working out plans to surreptitiously pull your shoe off during important meetings and scratch your foot along the base of your chair. The itch isn’t always overwhelming, but it is frequently very strong. Your skin may also become reddened and dry, and you might notice small blisters popping up. In very severe cases, these blisters might appear to merge together into a larger blister. The skin may also become crusty or scaly, making things even more unpleasant.

Because the symptoms of eczema are pretty similar to athlete’s foot, getting an accurate diagnosis is an important part of treating your condition correctly. Your podiatrist will likely make the diagnosis by examining the affected area visually, may ask about your medical history (including your or family members’ predisposition for allergies), and may get a skin scraping to make sure your symptoms aren’t being caused by something else, such as athlete’s foot.

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a cure for eczema, so it may be a condition you may need to deal with periodically throughout your life. However, there are plenty of very effective treatments you can use to make you (and your skin) more comfortable.

The first order of business is to avoid scratching. Rubbing your fingernails (or a stick, or one of those old-style washboards) along your skin may feel marvelous – for about ten seconds. Then, your skin will become more irritated than ever. Excessive scratching can even break the skin and lead to complications like sores and infections. Not a great outcome.

To soothe your skin (and thus prevent yourself from scratching), you can use a cold compress to reduce inflammation. Using corticosteroid creams may also be beneficial in turning the inflammation dial down, and other creams (such as lotion or petroleum jelly) or oatmeal baths can be extremely helpful by keeping the skin moisturized. Try to avoid harsh chemicals on the skin of your feet, and also keep your feet clean and dry as much as possible. This may help reduce stress on the skin and prevent eczema flare- ups. If you find that emotional stress makes your skin bubble and itch, try some relaxation techniques that work for you, such as yoga, meditation, or a romantic comedy movie marathon.

If you’re unable to sufficiently keep your eczema under control using these methods, your podiatrist may have medications or other options you can try. He or she can discuss these with you to see what would work best with your lifestyle.