Atopic dermatitis

What is atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis, also called eczema, is a skin disorder that usually appears in babies or very young children, and may last until the child reaches adolescence or adulthood. Eczema causes the skin to itch, turn red, and flake.

Parents with eczema are more likely to have children with eczema. Different triggers can make eczema worse, including environmental stress, allergies, and sweating. Of children who have eczema, 60 percent will show signs of eczema in the first year of life and 85 percent will show signs of eczema within the first 5 years.

What are the symptoms of eczema?

The distribution of eczema may change with age. In infants and young children, eczema is usually located on the face, outside of the elbows, and on the knees. In older children and adults, eczema tends to be on the hands and feet, the arms, and on the back of the knees. The following are the most common symptoms of eczema. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • dry, scaly skin
  • small bumps that open and weep when scratched
  • redness and swelling of the skin
  • a thickening of the skin (with chronic eczema)

Excessive rubbing and scratching can tear the skin and result in an infection. Some children only have a few episodes of flare-ups, while other children will have atopic dermatitis throughout adulthood.

The symptoms of eczema may resemble other skin conditions. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How is eczema diagnosed?

Atopic dermatitis is very common. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases estimates that at least 10 percent of infants and children have atopic dermatitis. Diagnosis is usually based on a physical examination and medical history. Diagnosis may also include the following:

  • family history (Children born to a mother who has allergic conditions are more prone to eczema.)
  • personal history of allergies or asthma
  • blood tests

Treatment for eczema:

Specific treatment for eczema will be determined by your child's physician based on:

  • your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disorder
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the reaction
  • your opinion or preference

There is no cure for eczema. The goals of treatment are to reduce itching and inflammation of the skin, moisturize the skin, and prevent infection.

Management of eczema symptoms:

The following are suggestions for the management of eczema:

  • Avoid contact with irritants, as determined by your child's physician.
  • Bathe your child regularly, use moisturizers, and practice good skin care techniques.
  • Do not use harsh soaps. Ask your child's physician to recommend a brand.
  • Make sure your child's fingernails are short, as scratching may contribute to an infection.
  • Use lubricating lotions at least once a day. Ask your child's physician to recommend a brand.

Your child's physician may also prescribe medications in severe cases. The following medications are most commonly used to treat eczema:

  • antihistamines - these medications help to decrease the amount of itching. Some examples are diphenhydramine (Benadryl®) or hydroxyzine (Atarax®). These medications may cause drowsiness. Some new antihistamines are also available that do not cause drowsiness. Consult your child's physician for more information.
  • steroid creams - these topical medications help to decrease the inflammation in the skin, thus, decreasing the itching and swelling. This helps with itching and swelling. Many topical steroids in various strengths are available. Steroids, if overused, are potentially damaging to the skin. Follow the advice of your child's physician.
  • oral antibiotics