Atopic Dermatitis (eczema)

Eczema 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 and then subside. 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 and other irritants, apply medicated creams or ointments, and moisturize your skin.

Symptoms Of Dermatitis

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

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, dry, 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.

Factors that worsen atopic dermatitis

Most people with atopic dermatitis also have Staphylococcus aureus bacteria on their skin. The staph bacteria multiply rapidly when the skin barrier is broken and fluid is present on the skin. This in turn may worsen symptoms, particularly in young children.

Factors that can worsen atopic dermatitis signs and symptoms include:

Dry skin, which can result from long, hot baths or showers

Scratching, which causes further skin damage

Bacteria and viruses

Stress

Sweat

Changes in heat and humidity

Solvents, cleaners, soaps and detergents

Wool in clothing, blankets and carpets

Dust and pollen

Tobacco smoke and air pollution

Eggs, milk, peanuts, soybeans, fish and wheat, in infants and children

Atopic dermatitis is related to allergies. But eliminating allergens is rarely helpful in clearing the condition. Occasionally, items that trap dust — such as feather pillows, down comforters, mattresses, carpeting and drapes — can worsen the condition.

Causes of Dermatitis

The exact cause of atopic dermatitis (eczema) is unknown. Healthy skin helps retain moisture and protects you from bacteria, irritants and allergens. Eczema is likely related to a mix of factors:

Dry, irritable skin, which reduces the skin’s ability to be an effective barrier

A gene variation that affects the skin’s barrier function

Immune system dysfunction

Bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus, on the skin that creates a film that blocks sweat glands

Environmental conditions

Treatment and Drugs

Atopic dermatitis can be persistent. You may need to try various treatments over months or years to control it. And even if you respond to treatment, your signs and symptoms may return (flare).

It’s important to recognize the condition early so you can start treatment. If regular moisturizing and other self-care steps don’t help, your doctor may suggest the following treatments and drugs:

Medications

Creams that control itching and inflammation. Your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid cream or ointment. Talk with your doctor before using any topical corticosteroid. Overuse of this drug may cause skin irritation or discoloration, thinning of the skin, infections, and stretch marks.

Creams that help repair the skin. Drugs called calcineurin inhibitors — such as tacrolimus (Protopic) and pimecrolimus (Elidel) — affect your immune system. Applied to the skin, they help maintain normal skin, control itching and reduce flares of atopic dermatitis. Due to possible side effects, these prescription-only drugs are used only when other treatments have failed or if someone can’t tolerate other treatments. They are approved for children older than 2 and for adults.

Drugs to fight infection. You may need antibiotics if you have a bacterial skin infection or an open sore or cracked skin caused by scratching. Your doctor may recommend taking oral antibiotics for a short time to treat an infection. Or he or she may suggest you take it for a longer time to reduce bacteria on your skin and to prevent another infection.

Oral anti-itch drugs. If itching is severe, oral antihistamines may help. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl, others) can make you sleepy and may be especially helpful at bedtime.

Oral or injected drugs that control inflammation. For more-severe cases, your doctor may prescribe oral corticosteroids — such as prednisone — or an injected corticosteroid. These drugs are effective but can’t be used long term because of potential serious side effects. Continue moisturizing and using other self-care remedies to prevent a flare-up after you stop taking the corticosteroids.