Atopic Dermatitis: What It Is, Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema, is a common skin condition that causes irritation, redness, itching and inflammation. It most often begins in childhood and can persist into adulthood. Here’s an in-depth look at what atopic dermatitis is, how to identify it, and treatment options that can provide relief.

What Is Atopic Dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is a chronic, inflammatory skin condition that flare ups periodically. It is one of the most common forms of eczema. Atopic refers to a group of diseases with an often inherited tendency to develop other allergic conditions like asthma or hay fever.

With atopic dermatitis, the immune system overreacts, causing the skin to become red, cracked and extremely itchy. Scratching leads to further irritation known as the “itch-scratch” cycle. The condition may come and go, with flare ups mixed with periods of remission.

Symptoms Of Atopic Dermatitis

Common Symptoms

  • Itchy, red, cracked skin
  • Rough, leathery patches or bumps
  • Oozing or crusting
  • Thickened, scaly skin
  • Papules or plaques
  • Skin discoloration

Where Symptoms Occur

Atopic dermatitis often appears in areas with folds or creases such as:

  • Inside elbows
  • Backs of knees
  • Fronts of ankles
  • Hands, fingers, wrists
  • Neck
  • Upper chest
  • Eyelids
  • Facial cheeks

In infants and children, rashes often appear on the face, scalp, chest, back, arms and legs. Symptoms typically improve with age.

Causes And Risk Factors

The exact cause of atopic dermatitis is unknown, but believed to involve genetics, immune system dysfunction, environmental exposures, skin biology and microbiome disruption.

Risk Factors

  • Family history of atopic dermatitis, asthma or hay fever
  • Gene mutations affecting skin barrier or immune function
  • Having other atopic conditions
  • Exposure to allergens or irritants
  • Contact with certain bacteria and viruses
  • Stress, sweat, hot/cold weather
  • Dry skin
  • Aggressive washing or bathing habits

Flares can occur due to various triggers ranging from environmental to emotional stressors. Identifying and managing triggers is an important part of treatment.

Diagnosis Of Atopic Dermatitis

A dermatologist can diagnose atopic dermatitis by reviewing symptoms and examining the appearance and locations of rashes. They may also review medical history for other atopic conditions.

No definitive lab test exists, but blood work or allergy testing can help rule out other disorders. A skin biopsy may sometimes be done to confirm the diagnosis if uncertain.

Atopic Dermatitis Treatment Options

While there is no cure for atopic dermatitis, various treatments can relieve symptoms and prevent flares. A combination approach is often needed.

1. Moisturizers and Emollients

Frequently applying fragrance-free moisturizing creams or ointments helps hydrate and protect skin. Ointments work better than lighter lotions.

2. Medicated Ointments and Creams

Topical prescription treatments like corticosteroid, tacrolimus or Eucrisa ointments can reduce inflammation during flares.

3. Oral Medications

For moderate to severe cases, oral immunosuppressants like cyclosporine may be prescribed to calm overactive immune response.

4. Phototherapy

Exposing skin to UVA or UVB light under medical supervision can relieve symptoms in some cases.

5. Biologic Drugs

Injectable biologics like Dupixent can inhibit specific parts of the immune system involved in eczema.

6. Wet Wrap Therapy

Wet dressings covered by a dry bandage can allow medicated ointments to better penetrate the skin.

7. Itch-relief Treatment

Antihistamines, cold compresses, or topical numbing creams may temporarily relieve itching.

8. Avoid Triggers

Reducing exposure to irritants, allergens, changes in temperature and emotional stress can prevent flares.

With a combination approach tailored to each individual, atopic dermatitis can often be effectively managed. See a dermatologist to develop an appropriate treatment regimen.


Atopic dermatitis is a common chronic skin condition affecting both children and adults, causing red, irritated and itchy rashes. While not completely curable, its symptoms can be managed with a variety of moisturizing, medical, and lifestyle approaches. Identifying and avoiding triggers is also key. With proper treatment guided by a dermatologist, periods of remission are possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is atopic dermatitis contagious?

A: No, eczema itself is not contagious and cannot spread from person to person. But bacterial infections can result from excessive scratching.

Q: Can adults develop atopic dermatitis?

A: Yes, atopic dermatitis most often starts in childhood but can persist into or develop during adulthood in some patients.

Q: What foods trigger eczema outbreaks?

A: Common food allergens like eggs, milk, soy, wheat and nuts may contribute to flares in some cases. An elimination diet can help identify problematic foods.

Q: Can I just stop treatment when my eczema clears up?

A: No, treatment needs to be continued even when in remission to prevent recurring flares. Slowly taper off medications only under a doctor’s supervision.

Q: Is eczema hereditary?

A: Yes, people with family members who have atopic dermatitis or related allergic conditions are at a higher risk. There appears to be a genetic component involving mutations in certain genes.

About the Author

Nicole Carter is a dedicated and passionate nutritionist, committed to helping individuals achieve their health and wellness goals through the power of proper nutrition. With a Bachelor's degree in Nutritional Science and years of practical experience.

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