What is eczema/atopic dermatitis?

Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a condition that makes your skin red and itchy. It’s common in children but can occur at any age. Atopic dermatitis is long-lasting (chronic) and tends to flare periodically. It may be accompanied by asthma or hay fever.

No cure has been found for atopic dermatitis. But treatments and self-care measures can relieve itching and prevent new outbreaks. For example, it helps to avoid harsh soaps, moisturize your skin regularly, and apply medicated creams or ointments.

Signs & Symptoms

Atopic dermatitis (eczema) signs and symptoms vary widely from person to person and include:

  • Dry skin
  • Itching, which may be severe, especially at night
  • Red to brownish-gray patches, especially on the hands, feet, ankles, wrists, neck, upper chest, eyelids, inside the bend of the elbows and knees, and in infants, the face and scalp
  • Small, raised bumps, which may leak fluid and crust over when scratched
  • Thickened, cracked, scaly skin
  • Raw, sensitive, swollen skin from scratching

Atopic dermatitis most often begins before age 5 and may persist into adolescence and adulthood. For some people, it flares periodically and then clears up for a time, even for several years.

What are the causes of eczema/atopic dermatitis?

Healthy skin helps retain moisture and protects you from bacteria, irritants, and allergens. Eczema is related to a gene variation that affects the skin’s ability to provide this protection. This allows your skin to be affected by environmental factors, irritants, and allergens.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of eczema can vary from person to person but usually include red, inflamed skin with a recurring rash and scaly areas.

Complications of atopic dermatitis (eczema) may include:

Asthma and hay fever. Eczema sometimes precedes these conditions. More than half of young children with atopic dermatitis develop asthma and hay fever by age 13.

Chronic itchy, scaly skin. A skin condition called neurodermatitis (lichen simplex chronicus) starts with a patch of itchy skin. You scratch the area, which makes it even itchier. Eventually, you may scratch simply out of habit. This condition can cause the affected skin to become discolored, thick, and leathery.

Skin infections. Repeated scratching that breaks the skin can cause open sores and cracks. These increase the risk of infection from bacteria and viruses, including the herpes simplex virus.

Irritant hand dermatitis. This especially affects people whose work requires that their hands are often wet and exposed to harsh soaps, detergents, and disinfectants.

Allergic contact dermatitis. This condition is common in people with atopic dermatitis.

Sleep problems. The itch-scratch cycle can cause poor sleep quality.

Can I prevent atopic dermatitis/eczema?

The following tips may help prevent bouts of dermatitis (flares) and minimize the drying effects of bathing:

Seal in moisture. Choose a product or products that work well for you to seal in moisture.

Try to identify and avoid triggers that worsen the condition. Things that can worsen the skin reaction include sweat, stress, obesity, soaps, detergents, dust, and pollen. Reduce your exposure to your triggers.

Infants and children may experience flares from eating certain foods, including eggs, milk, soy, and wheat. Talk with your child’s doctor about identifying potential food allergies.

Take shorter baths or showers. Limit your baths and showers to 10 to 15 minutes. And use warm, rather than hot, water.

Use only gentle soaps. Choose mild soaps. Deodorant soaps and antibacterial soaps can remove more natural oils and dry your skin.

Dry yourself carefully. After bathing gently pat your skin dry with a soft towel and apply moisturizer while your skin is still damp.

Moisturize your skin at least twice a day.