Frequently Asked Questions About Eczema
Answers to 10 Questions Parents Often Ask Dermatologists

  1. What is the difference between eczema and atopic dermatitis?
    The word “eczema” has a few meanings. It is a general term that means a family of skin conditions that causes the skin to become inflamed (swollen, irritated, and itchy). One of the most common types of eczema is atopic dermatitis, also called “atopic eczema.” Sometimes people use the word “eczema” when referring to atopic dermatitis.

  2. What is atopic dermatitis?
    Atopic dermatitis is a common type of eczema. Most (90%) of people develop atopic dermatitis by age 5. Skin affected by atopic dermatitis itches. This is probably because the skin has what your dermatologist may call “barrier defects.” These barrier defects allow things to irritate the skin more easily, and this causes itching.

  3. What does atopic dermatitis look like?
    While atopic dermatitis can look different from person to person, everyone shares one common symptom. The skin itches. In fact, atopic dermatitis usually begins with an itch and is often referred to as the “the itch that rashes.”

    In infants, the rash generally appears on the cheeks and around the mouth. By age 2, atopic dermatitis most commonly occurs on the hands, wrists, arms, and legs. You will often see atopic dermatitis in the creases of the elbows and the bends of the knees by age 4. The most commonly affected areas in children and adults are the face, neck, and the insides of the elbows, back of the knees, and ankles.

    Regardless of where the rash appears, it usually causes dry, red, and extremely itchy patches of skin. The skin can become so dry that it cracks and bleeds. Some people develop blisters that weep and ooze. The skin continues to itch. Long-term scratching can cause the skin to thicken and develop a leathery texture. Your dermatologist may call this thickening of the skin “lichenification.”

  4. Will my child outgrow atopic dermatitis?
    While there is currently no way to tell if a child will outgrow atopic dermatitis, most children have greatly diminished symptoms by school age. About half (50%) see atopic dermatitis completely fade by age 20. For others, atopic dermatitis persists for life. For most adults, the signs and symptoms are much milder than during childhood.

    If your child has atopic dermatitis, it is important to see your dermatologist. Treating atopic dermatitis can prevent it from becoming more severe.

  5. Is atopic dermatitis contagious?
    No. A child cannot get atopic dermatitis from playing with another child who has it. Your child cannot get atopic dermatitis from a public bathroom or a swimming pool.

    Atopic dermatitis is hereditary (passed from a parent to a child through genes). Some parents pass the gene for atopic dermatitis on without ever having atopic dermatitis.

  6. My child has atopic dermatitis. Some days her skin is calm; other days it flares. Why does this happen?
    In general, atopic dermatitis will come and go. There are things you can do to help reduce flare-ups. Practicing proper skin care and avoiding triggers can help tremendously. A trigger is anything that irritates the skin and causes it to itch. Triggers can vary from person to person.

  7. Is there a cure for atopic dermatitis?
    While rapid advancements in medical research continue, scientists do not expect to find a cure for atopic dermatitis any time soon. Scientists believe that current research will eventually lead to revolutionary new ways to diagnose, treat, and perhaps even prevent atopic dermatitis.

    For people looking for relief from atopic dermatitis today, the best advice continues to be:

    • Make lifestyle modifications to prevent flare-ups

    • See a dermatologist for treatment

    • Follow the skin care practices recommended by your dermatologist

    • Use medication as prescribed

  8. Is atopic dermatitis an allergy?
    While people with atopic dermatitis have an increased risk for developing certain allergic conditions such as a food allergy, hay fever, or asthma, atopic dermatitis is not an allergy. Very rarely will finding and eliminating an allergen such as a food eliminate the atopic dermatitis. In fact, researchers are finding that early exposure to allergens may actually help prevent atopic dermatitis.

  9. Is atopic dermatitis caused by nerves?
    While stress can trigger a flare-up, it does not actually cause atopic dermatitis. Research shows that learning to manage emotions and reduce stress can be effective ways to lessen the frequency and intensity of flare-ups.

  10. How is atopic dermatitis treated?
    Treatment often begins with a medicine called a corticosteroid. This medicine is applied to flaring skin to calm it quickly. To maintain this remission, your dermatologist will recommend skin care practices for people who have atopic dermatitis. These include short daily baths and applying moisturizer or a similar product.

    To calm the itch, which can be severe, an antihistamine may be prescribed. A skin infection is generally treated with an antibiotic.

    To keep the skin calm, a medicine called a calcineurin inhibitor or a corticosteroid may be applied to the skin periodically. A barrier repair cream also may be recommended. When these are used as directed, they can provide safe and effective relief from atopic dermatitis.

    If the atopic dermatitis is severe, phototherapy (lasers and other light treatments) and stronger medicines may be necessary to control the atopic dermatitis.

Abramovits W. “Atopic Dermatitis.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2005; July;53(suppl #1):S86-S93.

Simpson EL et al. “Atopic Dermatitis.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2005; July;53(1):115-128.

Williams HC. “Atopic Dermatitis.” New England Journal of Medicine. 2005. June;352(22):2314-2324.

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