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Atopic dermatitis (also known as AD) is the most common type of eczema. In fact, more than 18 million American adults have atopic dermatitis — which often appears as a red, itchy rash normally on the cheeks, arms and legs.
Atopic dermatitis typically begins in childhood, usually in the first six months of a baby’s life. Even though it’s a common form of eczema, it’s also severe and long-lasting. When you or your child have atopic dermatitis, it may improve at times, but at others it may get worse. Often, atopic dermatitis disappears as a child grows older, though some children will have atopic dermatitis flares into adulthood.
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.
We don’t know the exact cause of atopic dermatitis. Researchers do know that a combination of genetics and other factors are involved. When a substance from inside or outside the body triggers the immune system, it over-reacts and produces inflammation. It is this inflammation that causes the skin to become red, rashy and itchy.
Research also shows that some people with eczema, especially atopic dermatitis, have a mutation of the gene responsible for creating filaggrin. Filaggrin is a protein that helps our bodies maintain a healthy, protective barrier on the very top layer of the skin. Without enough filaggrin to build a strong skin barrier, moisture can escape and bacteria, viruses and more can enter. This is why many people with atopic have very dry and infection-prone skin.
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. Either way, atopic dermatitis is not contagious. You or your child cannot “catch” it from another person, or give it to someone else.
If you scratch too much, it could cause your atopic dermatitis to flare up
And you’ll also get the NEA "Eczema Basics" booklets for adults and children
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:
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 different 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 health care provider.
Learn more about the different types of eczema and their symptoms and triggers.
Atopic dermatitis is chronic, meaning it does not usually go away in a few days or weeks. It might get better or worse but the 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:
If the skin becomes infected, it may form a yellow crust or small pus-filled bumps. The skin may also become thicker from scratching and rubbing.
Other types of eczema, such as contact dermatitis may look like atopic dermatitis. It is possible to have atopic dermatitis and another type of eczema at once.
When trying to identify triggers that might aggravate your atopic dermatitis, keep in mind that a flare can appear some time after exposure.
Though triggers can vary from person to person, some of the most common atopic dermatitis triggers include:
Learn more about the most common causes and triggers of eczema.
Managing atopic dermatitis comes down to these basics:
When managing atopic dermatitis, it is important to be consistent with skin care including using OTC and prescription medications as directed.
Here are some things you can do to help control your 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. In extreme cases, systemic (taken by mouth or injection) steroids are used, though not recommended for the treatment of atopic dermatitis.
Learn more about how to control and treat your atopic dermatitis.