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What is Atopic Dermatitis?

Atopic Dermatitis (Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema) is a disease that causes itchy, inflamed skin. It typically affects the insides of the elbows, backs of the knees, and the face, but can cover most of the body. Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema falls into a category of diseases called atopic, a term originally used to describe the allergic conditions asthma and hay fever. Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema was included in the atopic category because it often affects people who either suffer from asthma and/or hay fever or have family members who do. Physicians often refer to these three conditions as the "atopic triad."

Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema is not contagious. Research indicates that atopic diseases like Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema are genetically determined, inherited from one s parents. A child with one parent who has an atopic condition has a one-in-four chance of having some form of atopic disease. If both parents are atopic, the child has a greater than one-in-two chance of being atopic.

Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema almost always begins in childhood, usually during infancy. Its symptoms are dry, itchy, scaly skin, cracks behind the ears, and rashes on the cheeks, arms, and legs. It alternately improves and worsens. During "flare-ups," open weeping or crusted sores may develop from the scratching or from infections.

Often the problem fades during childhood, though people with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema have a lifelong tendency to have:

  • Dry skin easily irritated
  • Occupational skin disease hand dermatitis
  • Skin infections Staph and herpes ("cold sores")
  • Eye problems eyelid dermatitis, cataracts
  • Family and social relationships disrupted
  • Work loss

Children affected by Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema may suffer from asthma and hay fever at the same time, or one or both of these conditions may develop later. These diseases usually appear before age 30 and often continue throughout life.

Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema is a very common disease, present worldwide, though it is more common in urban areas a developed countries. An estimated 10% of all people are at some time affected by Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema (may not apply in the tropics.) It affected men and women of all races equally.

Is eczema the same as Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema?

Eczema is a general term for any type of dermatitis or "inflammation of the skin." Atopic dermatitis (Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema) is the most severe and chronic (long-lasting) kind of eczema. Although the term eczema is often used for atopic dermatitis, there are several other skin diseases that are eczemas as well, including:


  • atopic dermatitis seborrheic dermatitis
  • nummular eczema irritant contact dermatitis
  • dishydrotic eczema allergic contact dermatitis


All types of eczema cause itching and redness, and some will blister, weep, or peel.

What sets off Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema?

Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema tends to flare-up when the person is exposed to certain trigger factors substances or conditions which worsen the dermatitis, such as dry skin, irritants, allergens, emotional stress, heat and sweating, and infections. The key to controlling Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema is avoiding or reducing such exposure.

People with atopic diseases are usually sensitive to certain agitating substances. Some of these substances are irritants and some are allergens.

Irritants are substances that cause burning, itching, or redness, such as solvents, industrial chemicals, detergents, fumes, tobacco smoke, paints, bleach, woollen fabrics, acidic foods, astringents and other alcohol-containing skin care products, and some soaps and fragrances. If an irritant is potent, or concentrated enough, it can irritate anyone s skin, whether they have Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema or not.

Allergens are more subtle trigger factors. An allergen does not irritate, but may trigger an Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema flare-up in those who have become allergic to it from prior exposure. Allergens are usually animal or vegetable proteins from foods, pollens, or pets.

When people with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema are exposed to an irritant or allergen to which they are sensitive, inflammation-producing cells come into the skin. There, they release chemicals that cause itching and redness. Further damage occurs when the person scratches and rubs the affected area.

All Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema sufferers must avoid irritants, while those with known allergies should likewise avoid allergens. Detecting an allergic substance can be difficult, as discussed below.

What about food allergies?

Food allergies can cause flare-ups. Since an allergic reaction to food (either by skin contact during food preparation or by eating the food) can trigger an Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema flare-up, it is important to identify the trigger foods.

Diagnosing food allergies is extremely difficult. The surest way is to observe a worsening of eczema when a particular food is eaten. Sometimes this is only a coincidence with flaring and needs to be verified with a food challenge, where the suspected food is eaten in the doctor s office. Withholding foods should be done only under the supervision of a physician as serious nutritional damage can be caused by the elimination of foods suspected to cause flare-ups. Patients are seldom allergic to more than one or two foods.

A skin test, made by scratching the skin with the suspected allergen, is helpful if the test is negative (indicating that the particular food will not affect the patient). If the scratched area becomes inflamed, the test is considered positive. Unfortunately, positive results are difficult to interpret and are accurate only about 20% of the time. At best, positive tests provide a clue to a possible allergy but should not be accepted as the last word. Additionally, because the skin of Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema sufferers is so sensitive, simply scratching it can cause inflammation, making the likelihood of a false-positive skin test even higher.

A blood test is another type of test to detect food allergies. Blood tests, also, have a very high rate of false positive and they are expensive. For these reasons, they are not recommended for allergy testing in people with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema.

What about other allergies?

Occasionally people with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema notice a worsening of their condition when exposed to airborne allergens, such as pets or dusty rooms. An allergy to dust mites (tiny organisms present in household dust) may worsen Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema in some people.

As with foods, positive scratch and blood tests are not very reliable for diagnosing an allergy to airborne substances. Research is being done on a "patch test" in which the suspected allergen is placed on the surface of the skin under a protective bandage. For now, however, the best approach is still the trial-and-error challenge method, under physician observation.

Allergy shots do not seem helpful for people with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema. In some cases, Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema actually worsens during allergy shot therapy, even as the allergy symptoms are improving.


What about emotional stress?

Many older Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema children and adults recognize a relationship between stressful occurrences in their lives and their Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema flare-ups. Anger, frustration, and embarrassment all may cause flushing and itching. The resultant scratching can cascade into perpetuating dermatitis.

People with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema can learn how to avoid stress-triggered flare-ups. Two key concepts are involved:

  • coping with psychologically stressful events
  • controlling scratching behaviour


What about climate, heat, humidity?

Extreme cold or hot temperatures, or sudden changes in the temperature, are poorly tolerated by persons with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema. High humidity causes increased sweating and may result in prickly-heat-type symptoms. Low humidity dries the skin, especially during winter months when homes are heated. Unfortunately, humidifiers do not help much; the best protection against "winter itch" is regular application of a good moisturizer. While you can do little about the climate (and moving to a new climate is often not possible, anyway), you can try to keep your home environment comfortable. Keeping thermostats set low and wearing fewer bedclothes, to prevent night sweating, are two ways to combat the problem.

What about exercise?

The only problem with exercise is that the resultant sweating generally causes itching. Layers of clothing can be removed to avoid overheating. Strenuous exercise is best avoided when a flare-up occurs.

What can be done when Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema flares-up?
The best line of defence against Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema is prevention, but flare-ups rarely can be avoided. Once inflammation begins, prompt treatment as directed by a physician is needed. Bathing or wet compresses may ease the itch. Hydrocortisone (steroid) creams applied directly to the affected area are helpful and a mainstay of therapy. Overuse of highly potent steroids can be damaging. Hydrocortisone pills or shots are sometimes used, but they are not safe for long-term use. Researchers are seeking new and safer drugs to control the itch and inflammation.

Another treatment option is the use of ultraviolet light or sunlamps. Under a physician s supervision, some Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema sufferers find this treatment helps. Tar baths, antihistamines, and antibiotics are often used, but these, too, meet with limited success. Treatments that don t seem to work include vitamins, mineral supplements, enriched diets, or nutritional supplements.

Topical Immunomodulators (TIMs)

TIMs is a new family of topical medications that work to inhibit the skin's inflammatory response (which is what causes the redness and also contributes to itching). At this time there are two FDA approved non-steroid drugs tacrolimus and pimecrolimus. TIMs are not steroids and do not cause thinning of the skin but they can suppress the immune system in the skin so that the use of sun protection for anyone receiving this therapy is recommended.


What can be done about dry skin?

Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema sufferers always have very dry, brittle skin. The external layer of the skin, called the stratum corneum, acts as a protective barrier. When the stratum corneum cracks because of dryness, irritants can reach the sensitive layers below and cause a flare-up of Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema.

Using moisturizers is the best and safest treatment to prevent dry skin. Moisturizers trap water beneath the skin, making it flexible and less likely to crack.

Research has found that the most effective moisturizers are ointment bases such as petrolatum. Cream base products are also helpful. Moisturizers work best when applied to damp skin. Lotions contain water and alcohol which can actually dry the skin and are usually inadequate for the dry skin of atopics.

People with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema can bathe regularly and use mild skin cleansers as long as they follow these simple rules:

use warm, not hot, water
avoid excessive scrubbing and towelling
apply a moisturizer to the skin within 3 minutes after bathing

What can be done about infections?

People with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema are prone to skin infections, especially staph and herpes. In general, infections are hard to prevent but should be treated promptly to avoid aggravating the Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema. It is important that persons with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema, or their parents, learn to recognize the early signs of skin infections and consult a physician immediately. Signs to watch for include increased redness, pus-filled bumps (pustules), and cold sores or fever blisters.

Sometimes viral illnesses such as colds or flu cause Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema flare-ups. Worsening can be avoided by taking extra skin care while the virus runs its course.

Can sufferers of Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema live normal lives?
Yes! People with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema do not have to be limited by their disease. It can be controlled by prevention, medication, and careful adherence to a treatment program supervised by a doctor.


Suggestions for treatment and control:

Establish a skin care routine. Following the physician s instructions is crucial for keeping Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema under control. This takes a lot of time and effort. Some sufferers may resent the effort or even deny that their skin needs special care. Resentment and denial are natural reactions to any disease. Failure to overcome these reactions, however, can lead to additional behaviour that is harmful to the skin, such as wearing fabrics that irritate the skin, missing skin treatments, and forgetting medications.

Establish a schedule and a regular daily routine. Include skin care along with all other activities of daily living such as brushing and flossing teeth or washing dinner dishes. It is important to maintain a flexible attitude, so that when the dermatitis flares and extra skin care is needed, it can be worked into the routine.

Recognize stressful situations and events. To cope with the stress in your life, you must first notice when and how often stressful situations arise. These include day-to-day hassles as well as major events such as a job change, money problems, legal difficulties, family illness, etc. Ask yourself, "How do I react to stress? How does my body feel when I am stressed?"

Learn stress management techniques. Certain approaches to reducing stress can be done on your own, such as setting priorities and organizing your time. Some activities that may reduce stress are regular aerobic exercise, hobbies, and meditation. Other approaches may require expert assistance such as a brief consultation with a psychologist.

Be aware of scratching. Keep a record in a diary or calendar of times and situations when scratching is worst, and then try to limit your exposure to such situations. Many people with Atopic Dermatitis or Atopic Eczema scratch the most during idle times. Engaging in a structured activity with other people or keeping busy with activities that involve the use of your hands may help prevent scratching

Control your environment. Avoid irritants and allergens. Avoid low humidity. Wear cotton clothing. Guard against infection. Moisturize.

A name given to a stubborn, itchy rash that occurs in certain people with sensitive or irritable skin. Eczema is common in infants and young children, and may disappear before adulthood. Eczema may clear for years, only to reappear later--often on the hands.


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Psoriasis is a common skin disease that causes raised red skin with thick silvery scales.


Vitiligo is a disorder in which white patches of skin appear on the body

hair loss

Hair loss usually develops gradually and may be patchy or diffuse


Acne is a disorder of the hair follicles and sebaceous oil glands that leads to skin infections


Inflammation of the skin, often a rash, swelling, pain, itching, cracking. Can be caused by an irritant or allergen

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