Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)

What is Atopic Dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis (eczema) is a skin irritation that produces red, itchy patches of skin. While more common in children, it can affect anyone. It’s a chronic condition characterized by periodic flare-ups. Atopic dermatitis is sometimes linked with asthma and allergies, although it’s typically a stand-alone skin condition.

What are the Symptoms of Atopic Dermatitis?

While stress isn’t a direct cause of atopic dermatitis, it can aggravate symptoms and make outbreaks worse. Some foods, including some dairy products, can also trigger outbreaks. Smoke, air pollution, changes in humidity, and pollen can also affect some people with the condition.

Symptoms include

  • Brown-gray or red patches
  • Scaly, dry, or thick skin
  • Raised bumps, some of which may leak or develop a crust from scratching
  • Sensitive areas of skin
  • Pain or swelling from scratching

Where Atopic Dermatitis Appears

Atopic dermatitis can appear on any area of skin on the body, although it most commonly appears on hands, feet, the neck and shoulder area, and upper chest. Patches can also develop on eyelids and inside areas where joints bend. Infants tend to have outbreaks on the face or scalp.

Atopic Dermatitis Causes

The underlying cause of atopic dermatitis – also known as eczema – remains unknown. However, there are certain commonalities in those who suffer from the condition.

Because atopic dermatitis is a form of an allergic reaction, many people with eczema have a family member with eczema and/or allergies, or a family history of allergies, asthma, and/or hay fever (allergic rhinitis). Unfortunately, the specifics of how the condition is passed from family member to child is not fully known.

What is known is that, if both of a child’s parents have allergic conditions, chances are extremely high that the child will develop an allergic condition and/or atopic dermatitis. Additionally, if a child already has one of the above conditions (allergies or asthma, for example), they are more susceptible to developing atopic dermatitis.

While genetics do play a significant role in a person’s development of eczema, they are not the only factor that determines whether or not someone develops the condition. In fact, about 30% of people with atopic dermatitis do not have a family history of allergies.

Recent research has also shown that children living in industrialized, cold climates with high levels of pollution are at greater risk for developing eczema.

How is Atopic Dermatitis Treated?

Prescription topical medications are often recommended to treat the condition. Some patients respond well to phototherapy involving the supervised exposure of the affected area to light.

Treatment includes

  • Systemic oral drugs for severe outbreaks
  • Acupuncture and other alternative treatments
  • Topical corticosteroids

There is no known cure for atopic dermatitis. Symptoms are often managed with self-care treatments to minimize itching and reduce the risk of outbreaks. Preventative measures such as avoiding harsh detergents or soaps and applying moisturizer or topical creams and ointments to exposed areas of skin can also help make the condition manageable.

Atopic Dermatitis Prevention

Because children with a family history of allergies are at greater risk for developing eczema, it is possible to take measures to prevent a child from developing eczema. While such measures are not foolproof, they may help to minimize the child’s susceptibility, boost their immune system, and/or diminish the severity of rashes which may occur as a result of the skin condition.

While breastfeeding is not always available to or possible for all parents, breastfeeding one’s baby for at least six months can help strengthen a child’s immune system. When the child is ready to begin consuming solid foods, consider foods which may potentially trigger an allergic reaction in the child, and speak with their doctor about how to proceed.

Last Reviewed:
September 12, 2016
Last Updated:
November 10, 2017