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What Is Atopic Dermatitis?


Jennifer Larson

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This content is created or selected by the Healthgrades editorial team and is funded by an advertising sponsor. The content is subject to the Healthgrades medical review process for accuracy, balance and objectivity. The content is not edited or otherwise influenced by the advertisers appearing on this page except with the possible suggestion of the broad topic area. For more information, read the HealthGrades advertising policy.


Treating Moderate to Severe Eczema

Because eczema can vary greatly in severity, a thorough understanding of treatment options is important.
Eczema skin on neck

Atopic dermatitis is the medical term for the chronic inflammatory skin disease that most of us call eczema. It’s actually only one specific type of eczema—and the most common type. Atopic dermatitis typically first develops in young children, usually under the age of five. In fact, the National Eczema Foundation estimates that it affects about 10.7% of children in the United States. But the condition can and often does persist into adulthood, affecting as many as 10.2% of American adults. And while it’s much less common to develop atopic dermatitis as an adult, it is possible to develop it at any age.

Caring for sensitive skin and eczema can be challenging, but with the right tips and tricks, you can give your skin the love it needs.

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 28, 2017

2017 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

A definitive cause of atopic dermatitis hasn’t been pinpointed yet, although researchers believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors is the most likely culprit. A family history of eczema, asthma or allergies seems to increase the risk of developing atopic dermatitis. Eczema doesn’t have a cure, either, but there are numerous treatments and self-care strategies that can help you manage it.

Symptoms and Triggers of Atopic Dermatitis

Dry, itchy skin is probably the most well-known and common symptom of atopic dermatitis. But people with eczema can also develop rashes on their faces, hands, feet, the creases of their elbows and behind their knees. Sometimes your skin will develop red scaly patches, which can thicken and become leathery. Unfortunately, many people with thick, leathery patches find that they itch almost constantly. You might also notice some small blisters forming on your skin. Those blisters may even break open and weep fluid.   

If you live in a dry climate, the arid air may aggravate your condition. Other factors can also play a role—they don’t cause atopic dermatitis but they can make existing symptoms worse or trigger a flare-up. These are some of the things that you may want to try to avoid as much as possible:

  • Stress

  • Dry skin

  • Sweat

  • Heat and humidity

  • Detergents and soaps

  • Cleaning products and chemical solvents

  • Air pollution (including smoke)

  • Perfumes and some cosmetics

  • Certain fabrics, notably wool and some synthetics

As tempting as it may be, scratching that dry, itchy skin is one of the worst things you can do. Your already sensitive and irritated skin will not appreciate the further damage you can inflict on it by scratching it. Scratching can break open the skin, which can lead to secondary skin infections.

Treatment for Atopic Dermatitis

To diagnose atopic dermatitis, your doctor will examine your skin and ask about your family medical history, since there can be a genetic component to this condition. You can also discuss any allergies or other conditions you have that may play a role.

Once you know what you’re dealing with, you and your doctor can discuss the best treatment for you. Your treatment plan will vary based on your age, symptoms and general health. Typically, your doctor will encourage you to develop and practice a regular skin care routine—think gentle soaps for washing, warm baths instead of hot showers, and regular application of moisturizers to retain or restore moisture in your skin. You should also try to avoid your triggers, the substances or circumstances that lead to flare-ups.

Parents caring for babies or young children with atopic dermatitis may also try to keep their children cool, since overheating can make the eczema symptoms worse. Experts suggest dressing your children in soft, cool clothing and keeping their fingernails trimmed so they can’t scratch their tender skin.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 14, 2017

© 2016 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. Atopic Dermatitis (eczema). Mayo Clinic.
  2. Atopic Dermatitis: Overview. American Academy of Dermatology.
  3. Eczema Prevalence in the United States. National Eczema Association.
  4. Kim BS. Atopic Dermatitis. Medscape.
  5. What Is Atopic Dermatitis? Fast Facts. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS).

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