Eczema is a general term that describes several different conditions in which skin is inflamed, red, scaly, and itchy. Eczema is a common skin condition, and atopic dermatitis (also called atopic eczema) is one of the most common forms of eczema.
Eczema can occur in adults or children. The condition is not contagious.
What Causes Atopic Eczema?
The cause of atopic eczema is not known, but the condition often affects people with a family history of allergies. Many individuals with eczema also have hay fever and/or asthma or have family members with those conditions.
Some factors can trigger a flare-up of eczema or make eczema worse, but they do not cause the condition. Eczema triggers include stress, skin irritants (including soaps, skin care products, or some fabrics), allergens, and climate/environment.
What Are the Symptoms of Atopic Eczema?
The appearance of eczema can vary from person to person. In adults, eczema occurs most frequently on the hands and elbows, and in "bending" areas such as the inside of the elbows and back of the knees. In young children, eczema is often seen on the elbows, knees, face, neck, and scalp. Signs and symptoms of atopic eczema include:
Dry, scaly, or crusted skin that might become thick and leathery from long-term scratching
Formation of small, fluid-filled blisters that might ooze when scratched
Infection of the areas where the skin has been broken
How Is Atopic Eczema Diagnosed?
Atopic eczema usually is diagnosed with an analysis of a person's history of symptoms and with an exam of the skin. A doctor might test an area of scaly or crusted skin to rule out other skin diseases or infections.
How Is Atopic Eczema Treated?
Atopic eczema can be treated with medications, including over-the-counter creams and ointments containing the steroid hydrocortisone (for example, Cortizone-10, Cort-Aid, Dermarest Eczema, Neosporin Eczema). These products may help control the itching, swelling, and redness associated with eczema. Prescription-strength cortisone creams, as well as cortisone pills and shots, are also used for more severe cases of eczema.
For people with mild-to-moderate eczema, topical immunomodulators (TIMs) can help. TIMS -- including brand name products Protopic and Elidel -- work by altering the body's immune response to allergens, preventing flare ups. However, in 2005, the FDA warned doctors to prescribe Elidel and Protopic with caution due to concerns over a possible cancer risk associated with their use. The two medications have an FDA "black box" warning on their packaging to alert doctors and patients to these potential risks. The warning advises doctors to prescribe short-term use of Elidel and Protopic only after other available eczema treatments have failed in adults and children over the age of 2.