What Is Atopic Dermatitis?

Everybody gets itchy skin once in a while. But when you have long-lasting, red, itchy rashes, it could be atopic dermatitis.

Better known as eczema, this skin condition is often found in children. But you can have it at any age. The rashes tend to flare, go away, and then come back again.

Symptoms

Most people will have their first signs of eczema before they’re 5 years old. Infants may have red, crusted, scaly areas on their cheeks, scalp, or the front of their arms and legs.

Both children and adults usually have very itchy, red rashes on the back of the neck and knees and in elbow creases. You may also have small bumps and flaky skin. The rash may also develop on the face, wrists, and forearms.

If you scratch, your skin can get thick, dark, and scarred. Itchiness is usually worse at night when you go to bed.

Scratching can also lead to infection. You'll notice red bumps that hurt and can be filled with pus. Be sure to see your doctor if this happens.

Other symptoms of atopic dermatitis include:

  • Scaly, dry skin
  • Rash that bubbles up, then weeps clear fluid
  • Cracked skin that hurts and sometimes bleeds
  • Skin creasing on the palms of the hand or under the eye
  • Darkening of skin around the eyes

Causes

Doctors aren't really sure what causes eczema. It seems to run in families, so if one of your parents or siblings has it, there may be a stronger chance that you or your child will have it, too.

Kids with it sometimes have someone in the family who has allergies, hay fever, or asthma. Some experts think that makes them more likely to get eczema. About half of kids who get it will also get hay fever or asthma.

Living somewhere that’s often cold or has a lot of pollution may increase your chances of getting it, as well.

Food allergies do not cause atopic dermatitis. However, having atopic dermatitis may indicate an increased risk for food allergies, such as to peanuts for example.

Atopic dermatitis isn't contagious. You can't catch it or give it to someone else.

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Triggers

Your skin might be fine for a long time. But then something happens to cause a rash or itchiness. Some things that trigger atopic dermatitis or make it worse include:

  • Strong soaps and detergents
  • Some fabrics, like wool or scratchy materials
  • Perfumes, skin care products, and makeup
  • Pollen and mold
  • Animal dander
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Stress and anger
  • Dry winter air/low humidity
  • Long or hot showers/baths
  • Dry skin
  • Sweating
  • Dust or sand
  • Certain foods (usually eggs, dairy products, wheat, soy, and nuts)

Treatments

You can't cure eczema. But there are things you can do to ease flares and maybe even stop them from happening.

Avoid triggers. Figure out what causes your skin problems and try to avoid those triggers. For example, if certain soaps or fabrics seem to cause rashes, stop using them. Try to avoid cigarette smoke, animal dander, and pollen if those seem to make your skin worse.

Take care of your skin. It's key to keep your skin moisturized. The best choices are thick creams or ointments that have little water. Put them on as soon as you get out of the shower or bath while your skin is still wet. Make sure you don't take baths or showers that are too hot or too long. That can dry out your skin.

Treat symptoms. Your doctor may suggest some medication for your symptoms. These might include steroid creams or ointments for mild flares or steroid pills for more severe cases.

Other treatments may include:

  • Antihistamines to control itching, especially at night
  • Antibiotics if you have an infection
  • Drugs to suppress your immune system such as dupilumab (Dupixent), which is given as an injection every two weeks, and crisaborole (Eucrisa), a non-steroidal ointment that is used topically twice a day.
  • Light therapy
  • Wet dressings
  • Other skin creams
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on June 22, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology: "Atopic Dermatitis."

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)."

FDA: “FDA approves new eczema drug Dupixent.”

KidsHealth: "Eczema."

National Eczema Foundation: "Atopic Dermatitis."

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "What Is Atopic Dermatitis?"

UptoDate: "Patient information: Atopic dermatitis (eczema) (Beyond the Basics)."

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