Overview

Atopic dermatitis (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. 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, moisturize your skin regularly, and apply medicated creams or ointments.

Symptoms

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

  • Dry skin
  • 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, 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.

When to see a doctor

See a doctor if you or your child:

  • Is so uncomfortable that the condition is affecting sleep and daily activities
  • Has a skin infection — look for red streaks, pus, yellow scabs
  • Continues to experience symptoms despite trying home remedies

Seek immediate medical attention for your child if the rash looks infected and he or she has a fever.

Causes

Healthy skin helps retain moisture and protects you from bacteria, irritants and allergens. Eczema is related to a gene variation that affects the skin's ability to provide this protection. This allows your skin to be affected by environmental factors, irritants and allergens.

In some children, food allergies may play a role in causing eczema.

Risk factors

The primary risk factor for atopic dermatitis is having a personal or family history of eczema, allergies, hay fever or asthma.

Complications

Complications of atopic dermatitis (eczema) may include:

  • Asthma and hay fever. Eczema sometimes precedes these conditions. More than half of young children with atopic dermatitis develop asthma and hay fever by age 13.
  • Chronic itchy, scaly skin. A skin condition called neurodermatitis (lichen simplex chronicus) starts with a patch of itchy skin. You scratch the area, which makes it even itchier. Eventually, you may scratch simply out of habit. This condition can cause the affected skin to become discolored, thick and leathery.
  • Skin infections. Repeated scratching that breaks the skin can cause open sores and cracks. These increase the risk of infection from bacteria and viruses, including the herpes simplex virus.
  • Irritant hand dermatitis. This especially affects people whose work requires that their hands are often wet and exposed to harsh soaps, detergents and disinfectants.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis. This condition is common in people with atopic dermatitis.
  • Sleep problems. The itch-scratch cycle can cause poor sleep quality.

Prevention

The following tips may help prevent bouts of dermatitis (flares) and minimize the drying effects of bathing:

  • Moisturize your skin at least twice a day. Creams, ointments and lotions seal in moisture. Choose a product or products that work well for you. Using petroleum jelly on your baby's skin may help prevent development of atopic dermatitis.
  • Try to identify and avoid triggers that worsen the condition. Things that can worsen the skin reaction include sweat, stress, obesity, soaps, detergents, dust and pollen. Reduce your exposure to your triggers.

    Infants and children may experience flares from eating certain foods, including eggs, milk, soy and wheat. Talk with your child's doctor about identifying potential food allergies.

  • Take shorter baths or showers. Limit your baths and showers to 10 to 15 minutes. And use warm, rather than hot, water.
  • Take a bleach bath. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends considering a bleach bath to help prevent flares. A diluted-bleach bath decreases bacteria on the skin and related infections. Add 1/2 cup (118 milliliters) of household bleach, not concentrated bleach, to a 40-gallon (151-liter) bathtub filled with warm water. Measures are for a U.S.-standard-sized tub filled to the overflow drainage holes.

    Soak from the neck down or just the affected areas of skin for about 10 minutes. Do not submerge the head. Take a bleach bath no more than twice a week.

  • Use only gentle soaps. Choose mild soaps. Deodorant soaps and antibacterial soaps can remove more natural oils and dry your skin.
  • Dry yourself carefully. After bathing gently pat your skin dry with a soft towel and apply moisturizer while your skin is still damp.