Not Found

Find information on medical topics, symptoms, drugs, procedures, news and more, written in everyday language.

* This is the Consumer Version. *

Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)

By Karen McKoy, MD, MPH

Atopic dermatitis is chronic, itchy inflammation of the upper layers of the skin that often develops in people who have hay fever or asthma and in people who have family members with these conditions.

  • Atopic dermatitis is very common, particularly in developed countries and among people who have a tendency to develop allergies.

  • Infants tend to develop red, oozing, crusted rashes on the face, scalp, diaper area, hands, arms, feet, or legs.

  • Older children and adults tend to develop one or a few spots, usually on the hands, upper arms, in front of the elbows, or behind the knees.

  • Doctors base the diagnosis on the appearance of the rash and the person's family medical history.

  • Treatment includes keeping the skin moist, applying corticosteroids to the skin, and sometimes other measures.

Atopic dermatitis is one of the most common skin diseases, particularly in urban areas or developed countries, affecting about 20% of children or adolescents and 1 to 3% of adults in developed countries. Most people develop the disorder before age 5, and many people develop it before age 1. Atopic dermatitis that develops during childhood frequently goes away or lessens greatly by adulthood.

Doctors do not know what causes atopic dermatitis, but it is related to genes and often runs in families along with asthma, hay fever (see Seasonal Allergies), and food allergies. The relationship between the dermatitis and these disorders is not clear because atopic dermatitis is not an allergy to a particular substance. Atopic dermatitis is not contagious.

Many conditions can make atopic dermatitis worse, including emotional stress, changes in temperature or humidity, bacterial skin infections, certain airborne particles (such as dust mites, molds, and dander), some cosmetics, and contact with irritating clothing (especially wool). In some infants, food allergies may provoke atopic dermatitis.


In the early (acute) phase, infants (usually less than 4 months old) develop red, oozing, crusted rashes on the face that spread to the neck, scalp, hands, arms, feet, and legs. Large areas of the body may be affected. This phase lasts 1 to 2 months.

In the chronic (later) phase, children and adults develop a rash that often occurs (and recurs) in only one or a few spots, especially on the hands, upper arms, in front of the elbows, or behind the knees.

Although the color, intensity, and location of the rash vary, the rash always itches. In older children and adults, intense itching is the main symptom. The itching often leads to uncontrollable scratching, triggering a cycle of itching-scratching-itching that makes the problem worse. Continuous scratching causes the skin to thicken (lichenification).


Scratching and rubbing can also tear the skin, leaving an opening for bacteria to enter and cause infections of the skin, tissues below the skin, and nearby lymph nodes. Widespread inflammation and scaling of the skin ( exfoliative dermatitis) also can develop.

In people with atopic dermatitis, infection with the herpes simplex virus, which in other people usually affects a small area with tiny, slightly painful blisters, may cause a serious illness with widespread dermatitis, blistering, and high fever (eczema herpeticum).

People with atopic dermatitis may also develop viral skin infections (such as common warts and molluscum contagiosum) and fungal skin infections.

People who have had atopic dermatitis for a long time may develop clouding of the lens of the eye ( cataracts) in their 20s or 30s.


  • The appearance of the rash and the person's family history

  • Sometimes skin tests or blood tests

A doctor makes the diagnosis of atopic dermatitis based on the typical appearance of the rash and often on whether other family members have allergies.

Sometimes, doctors do skin prick testing or patch tests or do blood tests (the radioallergosorbent test [RAST]) to determine which substances may be triggering attacks.


Atopic dermatitis often lessens by the time children are 5 years of age. However, flare-ups are common throughout adolescence and into adulthood. Girls and people who developed atopic dermatitis at an early age, have severe disease, have a family history, and have rhinitis or asthma are more likely to have atopic dermatitis for a long time. Even in these people, however, atopic dermatitis frequently resolves or lessens significantly by adulthood. Because the symptoms of atopic dermatitis are visible and sometimes disabling, children may develop long-term emotional problems as they face the challenge of living with the disease during their developmental years.


Avoiding contact with substances known to irritate the skin or foods that the person is sensitive to can prevent a rash.

Certain measures can help reduce exposure to common household triggers:

  • Using synthetic fiber pillows and impermeable mattress covers

  • Washing bedding in hot water

  • Removing upholstered furniture, soft toys, carpets, and pets (to reduce dust mites and animal dander)

  • Using air circulators equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in bedrooms and other frequently occupied living areas

  • Using dehumidifiers in basements and other poorly aerated, damp rooms (to reduce molds)

People should also try to reduce their emotional stress.


  • Measures to relieve itching

  • Measures to reduce exposure to triggering substances

No cure exists, but itching can be relieved with topical drugs or drugs taken by mouth (see Itching : Treatment of Itching). Treatments can usually be given at home, but people who have exfoliative dermatitis, cellulitis, or eczema herpeticum may need to be hospitalized.

Certain skin care measures are helpful:

  • Using soap substitutes instead of regular soap

  • Keeping the skin moist, either with commercial moisturizers or with petroleum jelly or vegetable oil after exposure to water

  • Applying moisturizers immediately after bathing, while the skin is damp

  • Bathing only once a day

  • Bathing in water diluted with bleach or in water with added colloidal oatmeal

  • Blotting or patting the skin dry after bathing rather than rubbing

Parents should cut their children's fingernails short to minimize scratching and thus reduce the risk of infection.

Specific treatments include applying a corticosteroid ointment or cream. To limit the use of corticosteroids in people being treated for long periods, doctors sometimes replace the corticosteroids with petroleum jelly for a week or more at a time. Ointments or creams containing an immune system‒modulating drug, such as tacrolimus or pimecrolimus, also are helpful and can limit the need for long-term corticosteroid use. Some doctors prescribe such drugs first. Corticosteroid tablets are a last resort for people with stubborn cases.

Phototherapy (exposure to ultraviolet light) may help adults (see Phototherapy). This treatment is avoided when possible in children and young adults because of its potential long-term side effects, including skin cancer and cataracts.

For severe cases, the immune system can be suppressed with cyclosporine, azathioprine, or mycophenolate mofetil taken by mouth, or injections of interferon gamma.

Eczema herpeticum is treated with the antiviral drug acyclovir.

Resources In This Article

* This is the Consumer Version. *