Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema) - Topic Overview

What causes atopic dermatitis?

The cause of atopic dermatitis isn't clear, but it affects your skin's ability to hold moisture. Your skin becomes dry, itchy, and easily irritated.

Most people who have atopic dermatitis have a personal or family history of allergies, such as hay fever (allergic rhinitis) or asthma.

Things that may make atopic dermatitis worse include:

  • Allergens, such as dust mites or animal dander.
  • Harsh soaps or detergents.
  • Weather changes, especially dry and cold.
  • Stress.
  • An allergic reaction to certain foods, such as eggs, peanuts, milk, wheat, fish, or soy products.
  • Skin infection.

What are the symptoms?

Atopic dermatitis starts with dry skin that is often very itchy. Scratching causes the dry skin to become red and irritated (inflamed). Infection often occurs. Tiny bumps that look like little blisters may appear and ooze fluid or crust over. These symptoms—dryness, itchiness, scratching, and inflammation—may come and go. Over time, a recurring rash can lead to tough and thickened skin.

Mild atopic dermatitis affects a small area of skin, isn't very itchy, and usually goes away with moisturizer. Severe atopic dermatitis covers a large area of skin that is very itchy and doesn't go away with moisturizer.

People tend to get the rash on certain parts of the body, depending on their age. Common sites for babies include the scalp and face (especially on the cheeks), the front of the knees, and the back of the elbows. In children, common areas include the neck, wrists, legs, ankles, the creases of elbows or knees, and between the buttocks. In adults, the rash often appears in the creases of the elbows or knees and on the nape of the neck.

How is atopic dermatitis diagnosed?

A doctor can usually tell if you have atopic dermatitis by doing a physical exam and asking questions about your past health.

Your doctor may advise allergy testing to find the things that trigger the rash. Allergy tests can be done by an allergist (immunologist) or dermatologist.

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How is it treated?

Mild atopic dermatitis can be treated at home.

  • Moisturize often to treat and prevent dry skin. Thicker creams and ointments, like petroleum jelly, work better than thinner lotions.
  • Avoid things that trigger rashes, such as harsh soaps and detergents, dander, and any other things you are allergic to.
  • Control scratching. You may want to cover the rash with a bandage to keep from rubbing it.
    • Putting mittens or cotton socks on your baby's hands may prevent him or her from scratching.
    • Wearing cotton gloves at night may help older children and adults. (Moisturize hands first before putting on the gloves.)
  • Use medicine prescribed by your doctor.
  • Bathe with lukewarm or warm (not hot) water. Soak for about 10 minutes. Use soap or shampoo at the end so that you aren't sitting in soapy water.

But if your symptoms are bothering you and aren't getting better, see your doctor. Getting medical treatment early may keep your symptoms from getting worse.

In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe pills or give you a shot to stop the itching. Or you may get ultraviolet (UV) light treatment at a clinic or doctor's office.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about atopic dermatitis:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Living with atopic dermatitis:

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise
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