What is atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis, often called eczema, is a chronic (long-lasting) disease that causes the skin to become inflamed and irritated, making it extremely itchy. Scratching leads to:

  • Redness.
  • Swelling.
  • Cracking.
  • “Weeping” clear fluid.
  • Crusting.
  • Scaling.

In most cases, there are times when the disease is worse, called flares, followed by times when the skin improves or clears up entirely, called remissions.

Atopic dermatitis is a common condition, and anyone can get the disease. However, it usually begins in childhood. Atopic dermatitis cannot be spread from person to person. No one knows what causes atopic dermatitis. Depending on how bad the symptoms are, living with atopic dermatitis can be hard, but treatment can help control symptoms.

Who gets atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is a common disease, and it usually appears in babies and children. For many, atopic dermatitis goes away before the teenage years. However, some children may continue to have symptoms as teens and adults. Occasionally, the disease first appears during adulthood.

You may have a higher chance of developing atopic dermatitis if you have a family history of:

  • Atopic dermatitis.
  • Hay fever.
  • Asthma.

In addition, atopic dermatitis is more common in non-Hispanic black children.

What are the symptoms of atopic dermatitis?

The most common symptom of atopic dermatitis is itching, which can be severe. Other common symptoms include:

  • Red to dark brown, dry patches of skin.
  • Rashes that that may ooze, weep clear fluid, or bleed when scratched.
  • Thickening and hardening of the skin.

The rash can appear anywhere on the body. The symptoms can flare in multiple spots at the same time.

People with atopic dermatitis often have other conditions, such as:

  • Asthma and allergies, including food allergies.
  • Other skin diseases, such as ichthyosis, which causes dry, thickened skin.
  • Depression or anxiety.
  • Sleep loss.

What causes atopic dermatitis?

No one knows what causes atopic dermatitis; however, doctors know that changes to the skin can cause it to dry out. This can lead to damage and cause the skin to become inflamed. How the skin protects itself and keeps in moisture may be affected by:

  • Changes in genes.
  • Problems with the immune system, which can become confused and too active, leading the skin to become inflamed.
  • Exposure to certain things in the environment, such as tobacco smoke, skin products and soaps, and certain air pollutants.