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What Is Atopic Dermatitis?

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What Is Atopic Dermatitis?

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Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of dermatitis causing rough, dry, and itchy skin.

Written by

Dr. Rabia Anjum

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Sneha Kannan

Published At March 1, 2019
Reviewed AtMarch 27, 2024

What Is Atopic Dermatitis?

Dermatitis is a term for a group of conditions that cause skin inflammation. There are different types of dermatitis, but atopic dermatitis is the most common of all. All forms of dermatitis are harmless and are not contagious. Atopic dermatitis often called atopic eczema is a disorder characterized by skin inflammation. Atopic dermatitis can happen at any age but it is more common in children. It is more likely to develop in people with a family history of eczema (inflamed skin), asthma (lung disease affecting airways), or hay fever (cold-like symptoms). Hallmark features of atopic dermatitis include dry, itchy skin and red rashes that come and go.

What Are the Other Types of Dermatitis?

Contact Dermatitis:

  • Contact dermatitis is an allergic reaction characterized by a painful or itchy skin rash.

  • People get contact dermatitis from contact with an allergen or irritants like poison ivy or a chemical.

  • Contact dermatitis is of two types:

    • Irritant contact dermatitis.

    • Allergic contact dermatitis.

  • Treatments for contact dermatitis include skin moisturizers, steroid medications, antibiotics, and wearing protective clothes wherever possible such as gloves, long-sleeves, and trousers.

Dyshidrotic Dermatitis:

  • This type of dermatitis presents with painful, itchy blisters on the edges of the fingers, palms, toes, and the soles of the feet.

  • The cause of dyshidrotic dermatitis is still unknown.

  • Treatments include wet compresses, steroid drugs, and Psoralen combined with ultraviolet A therapy.

Nummular Dermatitis:

  • Nummular dermatitis presents with circular, itchy spots on the skin. The condition more often affects men than women.

  • The cause of nummular dermatitis is still not known. However, certain factors may raise the chance of an outbreak, including cold, dry air, exposure to chemicals such as formaldehyde, and exposure to metals, including nickel.

  • Nummular dermatitis causes characteristic coin-shaped red marks. The marks usually appear on the legs, backs of the hands, forearms, lower back, and hips.

  • Treatments include a lukewarm bath or shower, moisturizers, steroid ointments, and antibiotics if an infection develops.


  • This type of dermatitis is caused by severe itching that irritates the skin's nerve endings.

  • The condition commonly affects the back, back of the neck, scalp, genitals, wrists, and ankles.

  • Sometimes irritated skin can grow thick and wrinkled, and infections may also develop in those areas.

  • Treatments include avoiding scratching and taking steroid medicines.

Seborrheic Dermatitis:

  • Seborrheic dermatitis, often called dandruff, appears red, dry, flaky, itchy skin on the scalp and other body parts.

  • The condition may occur due to an inflammatory reaction to excess Malassezia yeast, an organism that lives on the skin's surface.

  • It commonly affects the scalp, eyebrows, sides of the nose, the area behind the ears, groin, and center of the chest.

  • Treatments vary between infants and people and include shampoo containing salicylic acid, selenium sulfide, zinc pyrithione, coal tar, antifungal treatments, and steroid lotions.

Stasis Dermatitis:

  • Stasis dermatitis, also known as gravitational dermatitis, venous eczema, and venous stasis dermatitis, happens when the veins in the lower legs do not properly return blood to the heart.

  • Stasis dermatitis may be related to underlying medical conditions like heart or kidney disease.

  • Stasis dermatitis causes weeping and crusting of the skin. Over time, brown stains may also develop on the skin.

  • Treatments include steroid creams or ointments, creams or lotions that lubricate the skin, moist compresses, antibiotics to treat infections, and elevating the legs.

Diaper Dermatitis:

  • Diaper dermatitis occurs when a rash appears on any part of a baby’s skin covered by a diaper.

  • Diaper rash happens due to wet or infrequently changed diapers, skin sensitivity, and chafing.

  • The condition is marked by a patchwork of bright red skin on the diaper region, including skin buttocks, thighs, and genitals.

What Causes Atopic Dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis mainly happens when the skin’s natural barrier against irritants and allergens gets weakened. The condition may start early from two to six months of age and continue till adulthood. Various combinations of factors contribute to the development of atopic dermatitis, including:

  • Genetics.

  • Dry skin.

  • Rough clothing.

  • Household chemicals.

  • An immune system problem.

  • Foods, dust, mites, and other allergens.

What Are the Symptoms of Atopic Dermatitis?

Most often, atopic dermatitis affects the skin on the face, hands, feet, inner elbows, and back of the knees. The signs and symptoms may vary from person to person and include:

  • In infants aged less than two years of age, the skin rash affects the face, feet, hands, and scalp. The skin rash becomes itchy and blisters form that ooze.

  • In older adults, the affected areas are the inner side of the knees and elbows, hands, feet, and neck.

  • Dry skin.

  • Severe itching, especially at night.

  • Red to brownish-gray patches.

  • Small, raised fluid-filled bumps.

  • Thickened and scaly skin.

  • Sensitive and swollen skin from scratching.

  • Ear discharge.

How Is Atopic Dermatitis Diagnosed?

No laboratory test is usually needed to identify atopic dermatitis. The doctor diagnoses by thoroughly examining the skin and reviewing the medical history. In suspected cases, the doctor may perform the following tests:

  • An allergy skin test.

  • Blood tests to rule out the causes of the rash that may be unrelated to dermatitis.

  • A skin biopsy to differentiate one type of dermatitis from another.

How Is Atopic Dermatitis Treated?

The doctor may recommend the following treatments:

  • Corticosteroid cream or ointment to control itching and help repair the skin.

  • Creams containing Tacrolimus and Pimecrolimus control the skin reaction.

  • Antibiotic cream if the skin has a bacterial infection, an open sore, or cracks.

  • Over-the-counter antihistamines for severe itching.

  • Gentle soaps and other products are free of perfumes, dyes, and alcohol.

  • Topical immunomodulators for those who do not respond to other treatments.

  • Wet dressings involve applying the affected area with topical corticosteroids and wrapping it with wet bandages.

  • Phototherapy is used as an alternative for people who do not get better with topical medications. Phototherapy involves exposing the skin to ultraviolet light, usually ultraviolet B, from special lamps.

  • Consult a psychiatrist or therapist for counseling if experiencing poor mental or emotional health symptoms or are embarrassed or frustrated by their skin condition.

How Is Atopic Dermatitis Prevented?

The following tips may help prevent all forms of dermatitis:

  • Moisturize the skin at least twice daily using creams, ointments, and lotions.

  • Identify and avoid triggers that worsen the condition, including sweat, stress, obesity, soaps, detergents, dust, and pollen.

  • Take shorter baths or showers of 10 minutes to 15 minutes. Use lukewarm water instead of hot water.

  • Use only gentle soaps. Deodorant and antibacterial soaps can remove the natural oils and dry the skin.

  • Dry the skin carefully. After bathing, dry the skin with a soft towel and apply cream or lotion to the damp skin.

  • Wear gloves and protective clothing while handling chemicals.

  • Wear loose-fitting clothes made from cotton.

What Are the Complications Associated With Atopic Dermatitis?

The complications associated with atopic dermatitis are as follows:

  • Food allergies.

  • Asthma or hay fever.

  • Chronic itchy or scaly skin.

  • Skin patches are lighter or darker than the surrounding area.

  • Skin infections.

  • Sleep issues.

  • Anxiety

  • Depression.


Having dermatitis is common, but it may make people feel self-conscious in public. It can also affect self-esteem and quality of life. Almost all forms of dermatitis are treatable. Various treatment options are available to manage the symptoms. See a healthcare provider as soon as the symptoms of dermatitis start appearing. Several preventive measures can help reduce the risk of dermatitis.

Frequently Asked Questions


How Is Atopic Dermatitis Caused?

Atopic dermatitis is a chronic condition that affects the skin and can occur due to the following reasons:
- Genetic changes distract the skin’s functions, leading to various skin disorders.
- Familial history.
- Allergies.
- History of asthma or other allergic conditions.


What Are the Characteristics of Atopic Dermatitis?

The classic features of atopic dermatitis include
- Skin appears dry.
- Red, cracked, or scaly skin.
- Tiny bumps on the skin.
- Itchy rashes on the skin.
- The common sites include - knees, elbows, neck, etc.


Can the Sun Help With Atopic Dermatitis?

Generally, sun exposure offers vitamin D, which is essential for the body for several functions. In the case of atopic dermatitis, a few studies have reported that exposure to sun rays may decrease the severity of the condition. However, excess exposure to the sun may aggravate the skin condition. Therefore minimal sun exposure is suggested.


How to Treat Atopic Dermatitis?

When it comes to treating atopic dermatitis, it is essential to prevent further dryness of the skin by moisturizing it and with adequate hydration. Others include
- Medications such as antibiotics, anti-allergic, and others prevent infections and control the immune system. 
- Phototherapy.
- Wet dressings, etc.


Do Drugs Lead To Atopic Dermatitis?

Yes, certain drugs may lead to atopic dermatitis. Skin reactions may occur due to the intake of specific drugs over a week. This include:
- Tumor necrosis factor inhibitor.
- Diuretics.
- Immunoglobulins that are administered intravenously.
- Ribavirin.


How Do Eczema and Atopic Dermatitis Differ?

Eczema and dermatitis are both skin conditions. Eczema often refers to skin rashes that are itchy. Atopic dermatitis is a chronic disorder of the skin, while eczema is often related to other allergic conditions such as asthma. The rashes due to eczema may become swollen and red when scratched. Both atopic dermatitis and eczema may occur due to familial history, genetic changes, stress, allergies, etc.


Can Drink Stops Itching?

For several skin conditions, proper hydration is necessary for the treatment. Especially drinking plenty of water helps greatly in treating skin dryness, itching, and other symptoms. In addition, drinking adequate water may help drain the toxins stored in the body, which gradually relieves the skin from itching.


Does Atopic Dermatitis Go Away on Its Own?

The rashes formed due to atopic dermatitis may last for a long time, and they may keep recurring. In addition, atopic dermatitis in children may reduce within a few years and may return due to exposure to allergens or other triggering factors. In adults, the condition may be moderate to severe; however, medications and other treatments may reduce the symptoms.


Does Atopic Dermatitis Cause Itchiness?

Yes, the rashes caused by atopic dermatitis are itchy. These itchy rashes occur along the elbows, knees, neck, and other parts of the body. They appear dry, red, and crusted; severe scratching may cause them to ooze blood. Exposure to triggering factors may worsen the itching.


Does Atopic Dermatitis Cause Pain?

Atopic dermatitis is considered a form of eczema, and its classic features include itchiness, red rashes, tiny bumps on the skin, dryness, etc. Among them, pain may also occur due to severe scratching of the rashes, skin trauma, exposure to irritants, wounds, etc. Therefore, it is important to hydrate, prevent exposure to irritants, and use medications as suggested by the specialist to manage such pain.


Does Stress Cause Atopic Dermatitis?

Stress remains to be one of the risk factors for atopic dermatitis. In addition, being in stress also increases the frequency of flare-ups. High stress may directly elevate the levels of cortisol in the system. Increased cortisol levels may trigger the occurrence of atopic dermatitis. Therefore it is vital to follow certain methods to reduce the stress level to prevent dermatitis flare-ups.


Is Atopic Dermatitis Contagious?

The skin due to atopic dermatitis seems to be dry and itchy; the affected person may tend to scratch the dry skin and may touch the other areas of the skin, which leads to the spread of dermatitis. However, these conditions do not transmit from one individual to another; instead, it spreads to other areas of the skin of the same individual.


Does Dermatitis Mean a Fungal Infection?

No, dermatitis does not mean a fungal infection. But several fungal infections of the skin may also cause itchiness, rashes, red bumps on the skin, etc. It is vital to diagnose them properly to treat them better. Fungal infections are treatable with topical and oral antifungals. In addition, the prognosis of fungal infections of the skin is good compared to that of dermatitis.


Does Atopic Dermatitis Belong to the Group of Autoimmune Diseases?

No, atopic dermatitis does not belong to or be categorized under autoimmune disorders. They mainly occur as a result of genetic variations or triggering factors that agitate the protective function of the skin. Therefore, when the skin gets exposed to allergens or other irritants, atopic dermatitis may develop.
Dr. Rabia Anjum
Dr. Rabia Anjum



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