(Atopic Dermatitis)

Pronounced: EGG-zeh-mah


Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a chronic inflammation of the outer layers of the skin.

Causes    TOP

The exact cause of eczema is not known. Factors that may contribute to eczema include:

Risk Factors    TOP

Eczema is more common in people of African or Asian descent.

Factors that increase your chance of eczema include:

  • Asthma or hay fever
  • Urban areas or places with low humidity
  • A family history of eczema or allergic disorders
  • Exposure to certain fabrics, perfumes in soaps, dust mites (common), or foods
  • Stress, especially if it leads to scratching
  • Frequent washing of affected areas
  • Use of rubber gloves in persons sensitive to latex
  • Scratching or rubbing of skin
  • Immunosuppressant medications

Inflamed Lung and Asthma

Nuclus factsheet image
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Symptoms    TOP

The symptoms vary from person to person. Scratching and rubbing can cause or worsen some of the symptoms. Symptoms include:

  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Cracks behind the ears or in other skin creases
  • Red rashes on the cheeks, arms, and legs
  • Red, scaly skin
  • Thick, leathery skin
  • Small, raised bumps on the skin
  • Crusting, oozing, or cracking of the skin
  • Symptoms that worsen in the winter when inside air is dry due to central heating

Diagnosis    TOP

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The diagnosis is made by the appearance and location of the rash. You may be referred to specialist. A dermatologist focuses on skin disorders. An allergist focuses on allergies.

Treatment    TOP

The main goals of eczema treatments are to:

  • Heal the skin and keep it healthy
  • Stop scratching or rubbing
  • Avoid skin infection
  • Prevent flare-ups
  • Identify and avoid triggers

Treatment options may vary. Your doctor may recommend more than one depending on your condition. They include:

Skin Care

Proper skin care may allow the skin to heal. Treatment may include the following:

  • Avoid hot or long baths or showers. Keep them less than 15 minutes.
  • Use mild, unscented bar soap or non-soap cleanser. Use it sparingly.
  • Air-dry or gently pat dry after bathing. Apply gentle moisturizer when your skin is still damp.
  • Treat skin infections right away.


In some cases, medication may also be needed and may include:

  • Prescription creams and ointments containing cortisone, tacrolimus, or pimecrolimus
  • Prescription or over-the-counter antihistamines to help prevent itching
  • Antibiotics applied directly to the skin or taken by mouth in order to treat infections
  • Oral medications, such as prednisone or cyclosporine for severe cases

Phototherapy    TOP

If skin care and medications are not effective, light therapy may be used. This may include:

  • Treatment with ultraviolet A light and 5-methoxypsoralen (PUVA)
  • Photopheresis—For severe cases

Prevention    TOP

It is difficult to prevent eczema. This is most true when there is a strong family history.


American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
National Eczema Society


Canadian Dermatology Association


Atopic dermatitis. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed January 22, 2015.
Atopic dermatitis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated May 2013. Accessed January 22, 2015.
Barnetson RS, Rogers M. Childhood atopic eczema. BMJ. 2002;324:1376-1379.
Brehler R, Hildebrand A, Luger T. Recent developments in treatment of atopic eczema. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1997;36:983-994.
Holscher B, Frye C, Wichmann HE, Heinrich J. Exposure to pets and allergies in children. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 2002;13:334-341.
Mohla G, Horvath N, Stevens S. Quality of life improvement in a patient with severe atopic dermatitis treated with photopheresis. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1999;40(5 Pt 1):780-782.
Saarinen UM, Kajosaari M. Breastfeeding as prophylaxis against atopic disease: prospective follow-up study until 17 years old. Lancet. 1995;346:1065-1069.
Skin allergy. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed January 22, 2015.
Wahn U, Bos JD, Goodfield M, et al. Efficacy and safety of pimecrolimus cream in the long-term management of atopic dermatitis in children. Pediatrics. 2002;110(1 Pt 1):e2.
7/6/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Langan SM, Flohr C, Williams HC. The role of furry pets in eczema: a systematic review. Arch Dermatol. 2007;143:1570-1577.
6/4/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Alexander DD, Cabana MD. Partially hydrolyzed 100% whey protein infant formula and reduced risk of atopic dermatitis: a meta-analysis. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2010;50(4):422-430.
1/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Dotterud CK, Storr O, Johnsen R, Oien T. Probiotics in pregnant women to prevent allergic disease: a randomized, double-blind trial. Br J Dermatol. 2010;163:616-623.
Last reviewed January 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 11/6/2014

EBSCO Information Services is fully accredited by URAC. URAC is an independent, nonprofit health care accrediting organization dedicated to promoting health care quality through accreditation, certification and commendation.

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

To send comments or feedback to our Editorial Team regarding the content please email us at Our Health Library Support team will respond to your email request within 2 business days.