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Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Reviewed/Revised May 2023
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What is atopic dermatitis (eczema)?

Dermatitis is a general term for common skin irritation and inflammation.

Atopic dermatitis, also called eczema, is a long-term type of dermatitis that usually runs in families. It causes a patchy rash that makes your skin itchy, red, scaly, and dry.

What causes eczema?

What are the symptoms of eczema?

The symptoms of eczema are different for babies compared to children and adults.

For babies with eczema, the rash:

  • Is red, oozing, crusty, and itchy

  • Starts on the face and spreads to their neck, scalp, hands, arms, feet, and legs

  • Can cover large areas of their bodies

  • May last for several months before improving

For children and adults with eczema, the rash:

  • Itches a lot

  • Usually shows up in only one or a few spots, especially your hands, upper arms, in front of your elbows, behind your knees or around your eye

  • Can flare up again and again, usually in the same places

If you have eczema, your skin may get thick where you scratch it a lot. Scratching your open skin can lead to infections.

How can doctors tell if I have eczema?

Doctors can diagnose eczema by looking at the rash and asking you about your personal and family health history.

How do doctors treat eczema?

Doctors can’t cure eczema, but to help with your symptoms, they may suggest that you:

  • Apply medicines, such as corticosteroid and other creams, to lessen itching and heal your skin

  • Keep your skin moist with cool water compresses, lotions, petroleum jelly, or vegetable oil after baths or showers

  • Take a bath or shower only once a day to keep your skin from getting dry

  • Take a bath in water with a small amount of bleach, colloidal oatmeal (a product made of finely ground oatmeal), or tar medicine

  • Blot your skin dry after a bath or shower instead of rubbing it dry

If your eczema is severe, your doctor may prescribe corticosteroid pills or other medicines that slow down your immune system.

If you're an adult, your doctor may try phototherapy. With phototherapy your skin is exposed to a special ultraviolet light (similar to lights used for tanning). Doctors usually don't use phototherapy on children or adolescents with eczema.

How can I prevent eczema from getting worse?

To help prevent eczema from getting worse:

  • Avoid scratching

  • Use moisturizers to keep your skin from getting dry

  • Avoid things that irritate your skin

  • Avoid foods that you’re allergic to

  • Avoid sweating and very hot or cold temperatures

  • Wear light cotton clothes and avoid wool and other rough fabrics

  • Use a humidifier in the house to keep the air moist

  • Try to lower your emotional stress

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