Atopic dermatitis can be persistent. You may need to try various treatments over months or years to control it. And even if treatment is successful, signs and symptoms may return (flare).
It's important to recognize the condition early so that you can start treatment. If regular moisturizing and other self-care steps don't help, your doctor may suggest one or more of the following treatments:
Creams that control itching and help repair the skin. Your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid cream or ointment. Apply it as directed, after you moisturize. Overuse of this drug may cause side effects, including thinning skin.
Other creams containing drugs called calcineurin inhibitors — such as tacrolimus (Protopic) and pimecrolimus (Elidel) — affect your immune system. They are used by people older than age 2 to help control the skin reaction. Apply it as directed, after you moisturize. Avoid strong sunlight when using these products.
These drugs have a black box warning about a potential risk of cancer. But the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology has concluded that the risk-to-benefit ratios of topical pimecrolimus and tacrolimus are similar to those of most other conventional treatments of persistent eczema and that the data don't support the use of the black box warning.
- Drugs to fight infection. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic cream if your skin has a bacterial infection, an open sore or cracks. He or she may recommend taking oral antibiotics for a short time to treat an infection.
- Oral drugs that control inflammation. For more-severe cases, your doctor may prescribe oral corticosteroids — such as prednisone. These drugs are effective but can't be used long term because of potential serious side effects.
- Newer option for severe eczema. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved a new, injectable biologic (monoclonal antibody) called dupilumab (Dupixent). It is used to treat people with severe disease who do not respond well to other treatment options. This is a newer medication, so it doesn't have a long track record in terms of how well it helps people. Studies have shown it to be safe if used as directed. It is very expensive.
- Wet dressings. An effective, intensive treatment for severe atopic dermatitis involves wrapping the affected area with topical corticosteroids and wet bandages. Sometimes this is done in a hospital for people with widespread lesions because it's labor intensive and requires nursing expertise. Or, ask your doctor about learning how to do this technique at home.
Light therapy. This treatment is used for people who either don't get better with topical treatments or who rapidly flare again after treatment. The simplest form of light therapy (phototherapy) involves exposing the skin to controlled amounts of natural sunlight. Other forms use artificial ultraviolet A (UVA) and narrow band ultraviolet B (UVB) either alone or with medications.
Though effective, long-term light therapy has harmful effects, including premature skin aging and an increased risk of skin cancer. For these reasons, phototherapy is less commonly used in young children and not given to infants. Talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of light therapy.
- Counseling. Talking with a therapist or other counselor may help people who are embarrassed or frustrated by their skin condition.
- Relaxation, behavior modification and biofeedback. These approaches may help people who scratch habitually.
Treatment for eczema in babies (infantile eczema) includes:
- Identifying and avoiding skin irritants
- Avoiding extreme temperatures
- Lubricating your baby's skin with bath oils, creams or ointments
See your baby's doctor if these measures don't improve the rash or if the rash looks infected. Your baby may need a prescription medication to control the rash or to treat an infection. Your doctor may also recommend an oral antihistamine to help lessen the itch and to cause drowsiness, which may be helpful for nighttime itching and discomfort.