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Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)


Topic Overview

What is atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is a skin problem that causes dry skin, intense itching, and then a red, raised rash. It's most common in babies and children. It cannot be spread from person to person.

Some children with atopic dermatitis outgrow it or have milder cases as they get older. Also, a person may get atopic dermatitis as an adult. For some people, atopic dermatitis may be a long-lasting (chronic) skin problem that requires more than one treatment.

Atopic dermatitis is sometimes called eczema or atopic eczema. But atopic dermatitis is only one of many types of eczema.

See a picture of atopic dermatitisClick here to see an illustration..

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.
  • Certain foods, such as eggs, peanuts, milk, wheat, fish, or soy products, if you are allergic to them. Food allergies trigger atopic dermatitis more commonly in babies and children than in adults.
  • Skin infection.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom of atopic dermatitis is itching, followed by rash. The rash is red and patchy. It may be long-lasting (chronic) or may come and go (recurring). Tiny bumps that look like little blisters may appear and ooze fluid or crust over. Scratching can cause the sores to become infected. 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 different parts of the body, depending on their age. Common sites include the face, neck, arms, and legs. Rashes in the groin area are rare.

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.

How is it treated?

Mild atopic dermatitis can be treated at home.

  • Moisturize often. Creams work better than 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. Put mittens or cotton socks on your baby's hands to help prevent him or her from scratching.
  • Use medicine prescribed by your doctor.
  • Bathe with lukewarm water and for short periods.

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:

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