What is atopic dermatitis?
Atopic dermatitis (also known as AD) is the most common type of eczema. In fact, 17.8 million Americans have atopic dermatitis — which often appears as a red, itchy rash normally on the cheeks, arms and legs.
Severe atopic dermatitis on an adult arm
Atopic dermatitis exists with two other allergic conditions: asthma and hay fever (allergic rhinitis). People who have asthma and/or hay fever or who have family members who do, are more likely to develop AD.
Atopic dermatitis typically begins in childhood, usually in the first six months of a baby’s life. Even though it’s the most common form of eczema, it’s also the most severe and long-lasting. When you or your child have atopic dermatitis, it may improve at times, but at others it may get worse or flare up. Often, atopic dermatitis disappears as a child grows older, though some children will continue to experience atopic dermatitis into adulthood.
What causes atopic dermatitis?
Atopic dermatitis on the backs of the knees coupled with a staph infection
We don’t know the exact cause of atopic dermatitis. Researchers do know that a combination of genetics and environmental factors are involved. When something from outside the body triggers the immune system, the skin cells don’t behave like they should, causing the skin to flare up.
We also know that atopic dermatitis runs in families, but we don’t know the exact way it is passed from parents to children. If one parent has AD, asthma, or hay fever, there’s about a 50% chance that their child will have at least one of these diseases. If both parents have one or more of these conditions, the chances are much greater that their child will, too.
An estimated 10% of all people worldwide are affected by atopic dermatitis at some point in their life. The condition seems to be more common in urban areas and developed countries and affects men and women of all races equally. Either way, atopic dermatitis is not contagious. You or your child cannot “catch” it from another person, or give it to someone else.
Itching for relief?
If you scratch too much, it could cause your atopic dermatitis to flare up
- Get tips on managing the itch — like keeping your hands busy with other activities so you’re less likely to scratch
- Understand which allergens and substances can further irritate your atopic dermatitis
- Learn more about the best fabrics to wear that won’t irritate your skin
- Explore simple changes you can make in your daily life to help your symptoms
Sign up to learn how to stop the “itch-scratch cycle”
And you’ll also get the NEA digital guide to atopic dermatitis
What’s the difference between eczema and atopic dermatitis?
Atopic dermatitis is considered a more severe type of eczema. People with atopic dermatitis may experience a number of different sensitivities for the rest of their lives:
- Dry skin that becomes easily irritated
- Occupational skin diseases like hand dermatitis
- Skin infections like staph and herpes
- Eye problems like eyelid dermatitis or cataracts
There are other types of eczema that cause itching and redness, but some will also cause your skin to blister, “weep,” or peel. It’s important to understand which of the eight types of eczema you or your child may have, so that you can better treat and manage it. The only way to be sure that you or your child has this condition is to make an appointment with your doctor.
Atopic dermatitis rash, dry skin and scale on the feet of an adult male
Learn more about all eight types of eczema and their symptoms and triggers.
What does atopic dermatitis look like?
Unlike other kinds of eczema, atopic dermatitis does not usually go away in a few days or weeks. It might get better or worse but the atopic dermatitis symptoms typically return.
Atopic dermatitis is very itchy. Your or your child’s skin can become damaged from repeated scratching or rubbing. Atopic dermatitis normally appears on the cheeks, arms and legs, but can be anywhere on the body.
Symptoms of atopic dermatitis include:
- Dry, scaly skin
- Cracks behind the ears
- A rash on the cheeks, arms and/or legs
- Open, crusted or “weepy” sores (usually during flare-ups)
Are there things that make atopic dermatitis worse?
The key to staying healthy while living with atopic dermatitis is to manage your symptoms. That’s why it’s good to know about the everyday triggers in your surroundings that might make your atopic dermatitis flare up.
Some of the most common atopic dermatitis triggers:
- Dry skin — which can easily become brittle, scaly, rough, and tight
- Irritants — everyday products or substances (hand and dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, bubble bath and body wash, or surface cleaners and disinfectants) that can cause your skin to burn and itch, or become dry and red
- Stress — emotional stress can cause a person’s atopic dermatitis to flare up or get worse
- Hot/cold temps and sweating — can lead to itchy skin or “prickly heat” symptoms from the heat and/or sweating and very dry skin can develop during the cold winter months
- Infection — from bacteria and viruses that live in your environment (like staph, herpes, or certain types of fungi)
- Allergens — everyday materials in the environment like seasonal pollen, dust mites, pet dander and mold
- Hormones — flare ups may happen, especially in women, when certain hormones in the body increase or decrease
Learn more about the most common causes and triggers of atopic dermatitis.
How can I control my atopic dermatitis?
Atopic dermatitis with thickened (lichenified) skin from repeated scratching
There are a number of things you can do to manage your atopic dermatitis. The most important thing is to be consistent with your skin care. Setting up a daily routine is important for you or your child so that you are able to live more comfortably with atopic dermatitis.
Some things you can do to help control your atopic dermatitis:
- Establish a daily skin care routine focused on bathing and moisturing. Be sure not to miss treatments and adapt your routine to address any changes in your atopic dermatitis.
- Identify your atopic dermatitis triggers, including stress. Recognize stressful situations and events and learn to avoid or cope with them by using techniques for stress management. You may do this on your own, or with the help of your doctor or psychologist.
- Be mindful of scratching and rubbing and limit contact with materials or substances that may irritate your skin. Dress in soft, breathable clothing and avoid itchy fabrics like wool that can irritate your skin.
- Remove common, everyday allergens from your home.
Treatment for atopic dermatitis
Depending on the severity of symptoms, atopic dermatitis can be treated with topical medications, which are applied to the skin; phototherapy, a form of light treatment; immunosuppressant drugs that broadly curb the immune system; and biologic drugs that target specific areas of the immune system.
Learn more about how to control and treat your atopic dermatitis.